I’m with Arc on this one, the magic section absolutely requires clarification.
The headline clearly states “Spells, not Slots”, so I think that no spell slots exist. Page 4 already tells us “No more slots”, so how is casting limited now?
“Frequency limits on spells still apply, and are only expended when successfully cast.” That seems weird because apart from spell slots, there’s no limit and nothing to expend unless you’re talking about the way D&D used spells in the older editions: You memorize spells and once cast, they’re gone until re-memorized.
Also, what about Cantrips?
If you can cast a spell only once when memorized, many low-level combat spells have now been nerfed to a point of near-uselessness because the cantrip will be much better, as it’s not limited. (I believe most combat spells are a waste of spells slots anyway, so I might be biased here).
If cantrips are gone and spells are gone once cast, wizards (especially low-level wizards) will be back to 1-trick ponies and become pretty useless in combat once spells are spent. As in earlier editions.
Apart from the magic section, there are other things bothering me:
Why make unskilled rolls harder? That way you force all classes to get skills like acrobatics and the like, just be save when climbing. A wizard won’t (regularly) die from failing an Arcana roll, for example, so players will be inclined to lay off the “fluff” skills and concentrate on the pure dungeoneering skills.
The argument that rolls are easier to memorize is ridiculous because in 5E you have to remember to add your Proficiency bonus to skilled rolls, while in HC Mode you will have to remember not to add your attribute bonus and proficiency bonus to unskilled rolls. Nothing gained here, in my opinion.
“Things you’re not good at, you’re BAD at.” And that’s a good thing? No, absolutely not! Unless you also start playing the old school way and not roll the dice at all for many things. These days I’ve noticed that every small climb requires a skill roll. With the HC Mode you’ll have a harder time there. But all adventurers are supposed to be capable of the basics, aren’t they? That’s what 5E got right for “modern” “lots-of-rolls” play, so why take it away? At least make it clear to players that they’ll only roll for big challenges.
“Feats […] are compressed into an ‘on/off’ bonus system.” - No, feats are special abilities and they either still apply or they don’t. I don’t see how a +5 Passive Perception, a “Gain 3 Ritual Spells” and similar feats are affected, so this is a bit misleading.
Sounds good at first, but now you have to recalculate skills, attacks and AC. Keep it simple? Hm… Oh and now I’m healed, recalculate again. Personally, I guess I’d have to write down an injured and a normal stat so I don’t forget (AC especially).
Hardcore? Really? And who has the final say on whether the candle is still lit? Can the DM just say “Ah, sorry, the candle went out. Gust of wind. You’re all finally dead.”? This idea seems even worse to me than a readily-available ressurrection service at the local temple which at least needs lots of coin to work.
Why no unified XP table? 5E has pretty good balancing the first 10 levels already (I’ve never played above) and classes have a feel of progressing at the same pace. The argument that thieves learn faster and die more often is void with Zymer’s candle (Couldn’t you just place the candle before trying to disarm that trap and respawn?) and while wizards will grow to great power the time needed to get powerful doesn’t need adjustment, I think. (Unless you get rid of spell slots and allow unlimited casting, as proposed above).
The layout and art is great, I really like it! There are some very good ideas in there, but in the end I think it’s pretty much the same as using 5E classes in a B/X or OD&D game and add a house rule or two (Upper Hand and maybe casting, depending on how it’s meant to be).
So instead of calling this 5E Hardcore Mode I’ll refer to it as “Some nice house rules” for my game, if I even need them.
For pure 5E players, HC Mode is a great idea, don’t get me wrong. Players new to role-playing in general might also enjoy some ideas.
But for me, I’ll just play Dungeon Crawl Classics if I want a modern way of playing old school and hardcore, or I’ll play B/X or OD&D.