I’m currently a player in a group running the Tomb of Annihilation so character death is never far from my mind. While I’ve yet to lose my cleric, she’s lost plenty of companions to the myriad of monsters and traps. (No surprise there given the reputation of ToA). While some of these deaths were the result of epic encounters, others were…well, lackluster.
The pain of losing a character – one that you have spent hours of your life molding and investing in emotionally – to a laughably bad and anticlimactic death is awful. This is where Abyssal Brew’s supplement The Cycle comes in to make things a little more interesting. Designed to be a replacement for the death system in 5e, The Cycle aims to “[provide] a more cinematic feeling to the possible end of a character’s life”.
In a nutshell, The Cycle does away with characters falling immediately unconscious when they drop to 0 hit points. Although falling unconscious is an appropriate consequence in many scenarios, in the heat of battle it’s incredibly punishing to fall so abruptly. In The Cycle, when you hit 0 hit points or descend into negative hit points, you’re still up and moving…You just look, feel, and perform worse. It enforces realistic* parameters for your brutalized character:
- Attacks, checks, and saving throws (except for your Cycle saving throws) are made at disadvantage
- Enemies have the advantage on saving throws against your abilities
- Your damage is halved
- Your speed is reduced by 5 feet
*As realistic as a fantasy roleplaying game can be.
Enduring the Cycle
The Cycle requires saving throws that are not so different from vanilla death saving throws. You are required to make 3 successes to exit The Cycle, and 3 failures still mean the end of the journey for your character. However, without revealing too much, failed saving throws within The Cycle system are an interesting roleplay opportunity as you carry the failures with you until the next long rest. Say you barely scrape by in a tough fight and limp away with a failure or two. A character nursing a near-mortal wound at the campfire later that day serves as a wicked reminder of how close they really are to death in pursuit of their respective goals.
The Cycle also introduces a new status called On The Brink that presents an additional opportunity for a roleplay-rich, high-stakes encounter. This status is ‘activated’ when a character is stabilized or brought back to exactly 0 hit points. In this case, a character can never put themselves On The Brink but must rely on another character with a healer’s kit or another method of stabilization. You better hope you’ve been treating your cleric or party healer well because you’ll need them in order to shake off The Cycle.
Final Verdict & Last Word
In case it wasn’t obvious, I’m a DM and a player that values roleplay at the table. I’m also not someone that likes losing other characters or my own to anticlimactic ends. The time between death saving throws is agonizing and the “consciousness yo-yo”, as Matthew puts it, may reduce characters to little more than speed bumps on the battlefield. I don’t think it’s controversial to think player character deaths are difficult, but if your character should die, wouldn’t you want their death to be just as much of an experience as their life? This particular contribution to 5e homebrew content is perfect for any DM interested in boosting roleplay and raising the stakes in combat.
I didn’t want to end this review without mentioning the look of the supplement. The artwork and layout from Fernando and Matthew are stunning and polished. The cinematic mood the system aims for is matched by dark illustrations of a tense showdown and an unfortunate misstep. Definitely one of the prettier brews in a collection.