5e: Hacking the Game, Horizon Zero Dawn Part II

Read Part I of this series!

Last time, we covered the general themes and gameplay elements this game hack seeks to support in play. We also talked about the concept of character taxonomy in D&D and how Horizon Zero Dragons reworks that taxonomy. Finally, we made a start on changes to the rules as they apply to player characters: specifically, we went into how Horizon Zero Dragons handles abilities and hit points. This week, I’d like to talk about the hack’s alternative to classes: the Hunter, a single overarching origin to which all player characters belong.

The Hunter

Note: a complete first draft of the hunter is already written and available for you to read: you can find it here. Please take a look as you follow along with the rest of this article!

As the only “class” in the game, the hunter has to achieve two goals.

First, to quote myself from Part I, “characters need to have the necessary abilities that they can engage with parts of the game players are naturally going to expect when you tell them they’re going to be playing in the world of Horizon Zero Dawn”. The burden is therefore on the Hunter to provide all characters the necessary capabilities to engage in the expected pillars of play. They need to be capable survivalists, skilled combatants, and versatile explorers. These traits can be reinforced in the proficiencies granted to all hunters, as well as the features gained. The 1st level features are particularly important: along with any proficiencies, these features must enable a bare minimum level of engagement with the pillars of play we’re looking to support.

Second, the Hunter “has to be designed to allow a lot of flexibility, giving lots of choices so that no two hunters in the same party need feel the same”.

Note that these design goals might seem contradictory, since the first requires the Hunter to be oriented toward a small number of specific things, while the second design goal needs us to open up a considerable variety of options. In fact these goals are not necessarily at odds: it’s possible to create a broad selection of choices within a singular theme.

To achieve both design goals, there are certain features that all Hunters must have in order to be Hunters within the context of the Horizon Zero Dawn world. These features should, in my opinion, be immediately available at first level. Any other features should not be prescriptive: they should offer the player choices, ideally between a considerable variety of options.

A screenshot from Horizon Zero Dawn.

Hunter Features

The following are features of the Hunter. 


I’m not going to spend much time on this as the variant rules Horizon Zero Dragons uses for abilities were discussed in detail during Part I. In summary: 
  • Assign an array of modifiers (+2, +1, +0, and -1) between Might, Finesse, Acumen, and Spirit. 
  • Increase one ability of your choice by +1. 
  • Assign an array of grades (A, B, C, and D) to the four abilities. The grades work in conjunction to modifiers to allow finer comparison between two creatures’ relative power in any given ability: for instance, +2 (A) is weaker than +3 (D) but better than +2 (B), +2 (C), or +2 (D). 

Hit Points

I talked about hit points in Part I too. The default method of generating hit points in HZD is the stamina check. It’s a method that tends to be a little more generous, which may be beneficial in a game where immediate damage healing is somewhat less accessible.


Outfits. Horizon Zero Dawn uses a system of light, medium, and heavy outfits which grant various of defensive benefits. In this hack, outfits will replace D&D’s armour subsystem. I’ll talk more about this when we start discussing equipment! 

For now I see no practical benefit to restricting outfit proficiencies, and it also doesn’t reflect the video game experience to do so. All hunters can wear all kinds of outfit.
Weapons. Likewise, we see Aloy wielding all kinds of weapons with apparently practiced ease in the video game, and I can’t see it adding to the fun to require players to spend precious character resources to unlock access to any weapons we see from the video game. Hunters are proficient with all weapons they wield.
Tools. Hunter’s are proficient with the herbalism kit (to make potions) and woodcarver’s tools (to help them make arrows). I chose to also allow the player’s choice of one other tool as an easy means to contribute towards each hunter’s individuality.
Saving Throws. Since there are four abilities in Horizon Zero Dragons, there are also only four corresponding saving throws. Given how physical being a hunter is, it felt essential that all hunters are proficient in one of the two physical saving throws (Might or Finesse). To allow as much flexibility as possible, I’ve left that up to the player’s choice. Similarly, the player may also choose between the two mental/social saving throws (Acumen or Spirit). 
Skills. All hunters are proficient in survival, because how could they not be? Other than that, I didn’t want to dictate skill choices as this is an area where players should be able to make choices that help give their hunter individuality and specialist purpose within the hunting party. As well as survival, hunters get proficiency in three skills of their choice.


The world of Horizon Zero Dawn is populated by a number of distinct tribes. The video game and its Frozen Wilds DLC focus on just four tribes (Nora, Carja, Oseram, and Banuk), but representatives of two additional tribes (Tenakth and Utaru) do appear in the game. For this reason I wanted to create character options for all six canonical tribes, even if it meant taking even greater creative liberties with the tribes we know less about!

Carja concept art by Ilya Golitsyn and © Guerilla Games

Your choice of tribe actually has a fairly minor impact on your character. This decision aligns with the principles of choice that guide the hunter’s design: I didn’t want a player’s choice of tribe to dictate a large number of their features. A tribe typically offers one mechanical feature and one ribbon feature. It also provides recommendations for how you might want to spend your +1 floating ability score increase if you want to play a “typical” member of the tribe, but these are suggestions only.

Your tribe choice replaces a D&D character’s Race and Background, though you’ll notice you get less features. Most of the other mechanical benefits Race and Background would normally grant were absorbed into the overall Hunter package.

Hunter’s Prowess

This is the core feature of the Hunter’s design, and the primary mechanism through which the design goal of choice is achieved. Essentially, every time you gain this feature you get to choose a new prowess from among a long list of options.  Some of these options are derived from D&D‘s core classes. Others are new: either derived from the video game’s skill tree or conceptually suitable options created from scratch by me. The current class design grants a Hunter’s Prowess choice at 1st, 3rd, 7th, 9th, 13th, 15th, 17th, and 20th. As of now there are 42 options, some of which can be taken more than once. That’s more than enough for all player characters to have wildly different builds, and even more might be added going forward. Meaningful variation through feature choice has definitely been achieved! If you’re not already reading the hunter alongside this article, be sure to visit its wiki page to check out all the different prowess choices available!

Tribal techniques and prestiges both use a similar model to hunter’s prowess and are roughly equivalent to the point that they each interact with hunter’s prowess in one way or another. Both are both described later in this article.

Machine Hunter

One of several features that all hunters must possess to provide the expected game experience, this feature grants Machine Knowledge, a combination of acquired lore and practical hunting experience relating to machines. Of course it’s unreasonable that less experienced hunters know much about rarer and more deadly machines, so to begin with hunters gain Machine Knowledge for specific machines only. By default, the feature unlocks new Machine Knowledge as the hunter gains levels. The aim of this design choice is simplicity. However, the feature provides for the option of ignoring the level restrictions and instead granting new Machine Knowledge after new types of machine are encountered, tracked, and fought in-game.  
This feature also grants hunters the ability to craft items from machine salvage, allowing access to that portion of the crafting subsystem.

A screenshot from Horizon Zero Dawn.


This feature is also to guarantee all hunters essential skills. In this case, it guarantees the hunter’s ability to provide for their own survival, and perhaps the survival of others. Dehydration and starvation aren’t issues we need to concern ourselves with in this hack: quite the opposite. Although Horizon Zero Dawn is technically a post-apocalyptic game, its setting is lush and full of life. Food and drink aren’t particularly scarce: indeed, animals like boars and turkeys are quite numerous in the wild, and waters are teeming with fish. Since all characters are hunters, it should be trivially easy for the party to keep themselves sustained.
Survivalist also provides access to another essential part of the crafting subsystem: brewing potions.

Action Surge

At 2nd level, the hunter borrows this feature from D&D‘s fighter. As physically capable, heroic types it makes perfect sense for hunters to be able to push themselves past their normal limits. Combined with all the possible actions a hunter might take through use of their prowess selections or simply player creativity, action surge was a no-brainer that opens the floor to limitless awesome moments in play. 

Ability Score Increase

Like 5e’s core classes, the hunter gains ability score increases, which they receive at 4th, 8th, 12th, 16th, and 19th level. Since Horizon Zero Dragons does away with ability scores in favour of just using the modifiers, the feature is slightly simplified: you can only increase one ability by +1 (the equivalent of spending both increases on the same ability score within the core D&D rules).
I opted to remove any mention of feats, as I’m disinclined to include feats in the Horizon Zero Dragons hack. That’s a discussion for another time, but bears mentioning now to explain the absence of feats within the wording of this feature. 

Tribal Techniques

To fill out the remaining class progression, I conceived the idea of tribal techniques – special features that are only available to hunters who’ve received the training of a particular tribe. I wanted this to be a separate feature from the level 1 tribe choice because I wanted an option for players to choose a different tribe for this set of features. This flexibility opens up less usual character backgrounds, like a Nora youth who is exiled along with their family to the lands of the Banuk, or maybe a Carja who was trained by an Oseram mercenary.
Initially I envisioned tribal techniques as being equivalent to a class archetype, but I decided that was dictating too many of the character’s features. Instead, I changed tribal techniques to be similar to hunter’s prowess, though limited to hunters who’ve received training from the right tribe. They are gained at 6th, 10th, 14th, and 18th level. 
To begin with I’ve created six tribal techniques for each tribe, though may come up with more in time. Additionally, since a tribal technique is mechanically equivalent to a hunter’s prowess, it seemed reasonable to allow a player to select a hunter’s prowess instead if they so wish. 
Banuk concept art by Ilya Golitsyn and © Guerilla Games

Hunter’s Excellence

Every class progression needs a capstone, but the hunter’s capstone needs to be flexible so that all player characters in the game aren’t just getting the same thing. I opted for a+3 worth of bonuses to be divided among the character’s abilities, and one final hunter’s prowess.


Certain abilities gained by Aloy throughout the course of the video game are extremely rare, if not unique. In part, because there are barriers preventing most normal hunters from utilising the same abilities. Many of Aloy’s powers rely on her ownership and understanding of a device known as a focus, for example.
In order to include the abilities in the game but also limit access to hunters who meet certain prerequisites, I conceived prestiges. Conceptually, these are similar to the notion of prestige classes which exists in other versions of the d20 rules. Mechanically, they’re not quite the same. You don’t need to take levels in a new class to gain access to prestige features. Rather, when you meet the prerequisites and join the prestige you simply gain access to its features. A prestige’s core features are mechanically equivalent to a hunter’s prowess, and you can simply select one instead of a standard prowess whenever you gain that feature.
As of now, I intend to add three prestiges to the game:
  • The Focused Hunter has access to a working focus and its capabilities.
  • The Lodge Hunter (still a work in progress) has proven their skills in the hunting trials and joined the Hunting Lodge in Meridian.
  • The Machine Master (still a work in progress) has gained the ability to override machines and make them temporary allies.

Next Time…

That’ll do for now! When we visit the hack again, I’ll talk about some rules changes.

Share your thoughts!

As always, thanks for reading! Let me know what you think about some of these changes, as well as any ideas you might have for further development of the Horizon Zero Dragons hack! Either leave a comment, or reach out on twitter