The DM. Yes, he goes by many names in the table-top community and she may also have the most feared position at the table. Many a character has died by his hand. Many a player has wept at her feet. “Methinks the DM doth have too much power,” to paraphrase that part in Hamlet. While we may have limited tools to defend ourselves against this tyrant, we have the books, magic, and our intuition.
Well, let your spite take over and use these brutal ways to break 5e (Which is typically really difficult to do which is why there's only 3 ways I could work up.) Please note I am using the optional feat rule and Volo’s Guide to Monsters, as well the optional multi-classing rule for some of these.
1- The Speedster
“Well I’ve got a 50 ft speed,” Said the Barbarian to the party, “I can outrun all of you.” Imagine his surprise when you almost make a sonic boom and move from one side to the battlefield in less than a turn. While this build will require most likely require a merciful DM (ironic considering my rant, I know,) and some pretty solid rolls on loot, it is more than worth it in the long… run (One).
In order to make this scary fast character you’re going to need to take the monk class, the Tabaxi race (Volos guide), the mobile feat, boots of speed, a haste spell and the dash action. When you put all of this together you come to a grand total of 1,120 feet in a turn. Allow me to break down the implications of this. If we look through the PHB they say a turn is roughly 6 seconds. If we do all of our calculations, you make a top speed of 205 KPH (127 MPH). Note: If this monk is made he is most certainly addicted to a very dangerous drug-speed. ( I’m not funny, also, two.)
Maybe you don’t have boots of speed or the haste spell. Maybe you don’t even have the option to use feats. In that case, we still have the Tabaxi’s ability to double their speed for a turn, the dash action, and a max speed (at level 20) of 60 feet. Which means that at our worst we’re working with 240 feet maximum, which works out to 44 KPH (27 MPH). This speed is actually the fastest speed ever recorded by a human in real life, making it a bit better for a more realistic campaign. That really makes me want to BOLT (three) to the character sheets to whip up our fast feline.
2- See all, Know all
If you’re like me and didn’t realize passive perception was a thing for the first while of playing 5e, then you were probably kicking yourself constantly asking your players to roll perception for everything under the sun, or asking to roll for perception constantly. Might as well try to redeem yourself with this build.
(Please note I actually stumbled upon this build and was inspired to write this article through Nerdarchy, find their youtube channel here find their webpage here.)
For this character you’re going to need the Observant feat, multiclassing as a ranger/rogue, putting your expertise (from the rogue class) into perception and investigation, high wisdom and intelligence, the Alert feat, and a robe of eyes. Allow me to show you the full power of this build; As you should know the highest DC in game 30, at level 10 (5 ranger/ 5 rogue) your total passive perception score is 28 (with a 20 WIS). At level 20, (again half and half) your total passive perception would be 32. Capped at 30 obviously. With the robe, you gain an advantage, darkvision (if you don't already have it), the ability to see invisibility (with 30 passive perception you’re pretty much already doing that) and the ability to see into the ethereal plane. Essentially you’re not going to miss much. EYE(four) think this is a pretty impressive build.(P.S. Might as well throw in a ring of x-ray vision because why not?)
Swim speeds sure are handy. They may not be something you utilize constantly, but in a campaign where you’re always on the high seas or consistently around water, it becomes almost a necessity. With Volo’s guide, we received a few new races playing around with the many speeds in D&D. To me the Lizardfolk have a certain charm in comparison to the other three races that offer new speed types and even though the Tabaxi can SCALE(five) things with relative ease, the Lizardfolk have a bonus to AC that has lead me to find a most interesting combination.
To perform this little trick the Lizardfolk race needs to be selected, as well as the barbarian class,a damn good CON and DEX, a ring of protection, a cloak of protection, and might as well grab a shield +3 (Note: During the rest of this article I tried to limit the amount of magical items to two when whipping up a game break, but without the maxed out shield, it couldn’t really be considered “game breaking,” also I assumed the Lizardfolk’s 13 base would apply to the unarmoured defence.)
So, let's go this route; Lets operate under the assumption that you’re a level 20, and that your CON is 24 and your DEX is a respectable 18. At this point I’m really sick of math so I’m just going to blatantly say that your AC would be 31. Which as you know is completely insane. If we go to the absolute extreme with the rest of this and say that you have also read the Manual of Bodily Health and the Manual of Quickness of Action (Put the DEX at a cool 22 max and the CON a mighty 26 max) your total AC would be a grand total of 34. Which puts you in a CLASS(six) of your own, as the Tarrasque(highest AC in 5e) has an AC of 25.
Long story short any game you try to break will break. However that does kind of suck the fun out of it doesn’t it? Although, every now and then everyone wants to sit back and relax in “god mode” for a while. No back BREAKING(a forced seventh) carry weight can stop you, no dirty CON(I’m really hating myself at eight) on a corner can fool you and no blade can SLICE(wait that’s not a pun) your thick skin. When it comes to basic characters, try to optimise, but keep in mind, there is a thing as “too” powerful, especially in games where balance is such a key aspect, and a part of the multiplayer aspect of D&D. If you want something where you’re good at everything and have powers of a god, go play an Elder Scrolls game.
Jarod Lalonde is a young role-player and writer whose passion for both lead him here. He’s often sarcastic and has a +5 to insult. Dungeons and Dragons is his favorite platform. Although he’s not quite sure if it’s Call of Cthulhu whispering to him in the small hours of the night, or just persistent flashbacks to the Far Realm.
Instinctively, I go for simple rule systems. I try to focus on the Role-Playing side of things, and I try and keep the game administration to a minimum. Sure, roll a die to simulate the randomness of the real world. Otherwise, tell me what you want to do, and we’ll take it from there.
Recently, however, I’ve been playing a game that is the exact opposite of this, and wouldn’t you know it, I’m actually thoroughly enjoying myself. The game is, of course, Shadowrun. Now in its 5th edition, the rules were streamlined, and the Corebook is written very linearly.
And here are the 6 reasons I find this game really great.
1 – Background:
Ok, disclaimer; although it is my first time playing the Shadowrun RPG, I’ve been playing other games set in that universe (card, board, PC) for more than 20 years. So I REALLY love the setting. In 2012, magic returned to the world, following an ebb and flow that was described by the Mayans in their calendars. Some people realised they had magic powers and some mutated into elves, dwarves, orcs, and trolls (they had the genes, but the lack of magic in the environment kept it latent).
It is now the 2060s, and we are left, after a lot of political and social upheaval, with the 6th World: A universe where elves have cybernetic implants, orcs hack into the Matrix (a global 3-dimensional representation of the internet), and dwarf street samurais kill as fast as they hit. They usually start with the knees.
It’s William Gibson's Neuromancer married with Tolkien. HOW CAN YOU NOT LOVE IT!? Oh, and the US president is a dragon. In human form. Did I mention that? I feel like I should.
There are dozens of books, both novels and settings, covering most of the world, and they show a fascinating evolution of the in-game universe over the decades.
2 – Characters and Backgrounds:
The characters will be from one of a few playable races, human, elf, dwarf, orc and troll, each with various racial bonuses. Where Shadowrun comes into its own is that it has a classless system. You don’t pick Street Samurai (street merc) and get loads of skills with it, you pick loads of skills TO MAKE YOU A BETTER STREET SAMURAI. There is no reason why you couldn’t be a Jack-of-all-trades, but you wouldn’t be a master of anything. Although classless, there are half a dozen broad ‘jobs’ a Shadowrunner can have, the Shaman (magic user), the Decker (hacker), the Rigger (mental control of vehicles and drones), street samurai (street merc, usually weapons-savvy), the face (huge charisma), and a couple more. So if you want to play a magic user, you should keep your skill selection in that area, and perhaps not be too concerned about, say, hacking. Obviously, always pick some guns/gun-related abilities.
3 – The Dice:
Dice rolls in Shadowrun are both simple and complicated. You roll d6’s with 5 and 6 as successes. If more than half your dice come up as 1’s, that’s a fail (called a Glitch). Simple, yes? Well, not quite. For a simple roll, something you’re not brilliant at, you might roll 4 dice. For something my character is amazing at, I’m rolling 10d6; and I’m a starting character. With bonuses, our Face (high charisma social guy) is rolling 12d6 to persuade/lie to people. It gets busy, FAST. Combat is where it gets interesting, as you roll for attack and your target does the same to defend.
4 – Character Creation:
This is the only item where I feel I should put a small hazard sign. Character Creation in Shadowrun 5e is straightforward, but time consuming and roundabout. If you’ve never done it before, plan for a couple of hours, minimum. It all starts with a table. This table has columns, one with various amounts of skill points, another with money, another with attribute points, and so on. You then pick, say, one amount of money. You now cannot pick any other number from that same line. So if you pick the highest possible number of Skill points, now you cannot pick the highest number of anything else, nicely balancing the character. You then spend these points (which then relate to number of d6 rolled) to buy Skills, Attributes, etc Its complex, sure, but not that bad, really, until it comes time for the gear. Cthulhu help me, there’s guns, gun mods, fake ID’s, drones, drone weapons, computers, programs, vans, motorbikes, clothes, cyberware…. I COULD go on.
Don’t let me push you away, though. The book is pretty good at telling you what you need to do, and it follows a logical sequence.
5 – Gameplay:
You pick an action, roll the combined Skill + Attribute Bonus number of d6 and see how many came out 5 or 6s. The varying number of successes (said 5 and 6) tell you how good you were at that action. Or you rolled more than half the dice as 1’s and now the drak hit the air recycling unit.
With a knowledgeable GM, this is a game you’ll remember for ages. The cyberpunk dystopian Blade Runner-esque environment closes around you. You’re Shadowrunners, shady mercs sent on jobs (‘Runs’) for private or Corporate clients. It can be as simple as delivering a package or killing someone. The limits are yours to choose.
6 – Overall:
In the name of all that’s good and fluffy, PLAY IT! Don’t let the size of the Corebook or CC put you off. It’s really the hardest bit. And the level of detail your character will have at the end of it is almost unparalleled.
And always remember: Shoot fast, punch hard, and NEVER cut a deal with a dragon.
Rui is a Portuguese scientist that, after ten years doing strange things in labs, decided to become a teacher. Then, two years ago, like he was bit by a radioactive D20, RPG’s came into his life, and he’s now juggling teaching, playing and GMing quite happily. He lives in the UK with his partner Joana, an ungodly number of potted plants, 4 to 5 RPG’s at various stages of completion (and across as many rule systems), and maps, cursed idols, evil necklaces, and any other props he can get his hands on. He’s been writing for HLG for a few months, and is one of the resident vloggers. He can be reached at @Atomic_RPG.
First Impressions Of Volo's Guide To Monsters: 9 Observations From A DM's Perspective (Both Good And Bad)
First let me say two things: I love Sir Volo; I've read all his books. My copy of Volo's Guide to the Sword Coast was so well used that it was held together with scotch tape and Cheeto dust. Second, I've been a DM for three quarters of my life so when I buy a new supplement I judge it on what it will add to my games.
I recently got Volo's Guide to Monsters as a Christmas present and I promptly ignored my family to read it through. Given my preoccupation with building campaigns I was excited for the possibilities of this new supplement for 5e D&D. I wanted to pass on my first impressions to other gamers and DMs. Here are some of the things that I am most excited about and some of my disappointment.
First, my disappointment:
1) A missed opportunity for sub races.
The introduction of 13 new playable races is great. That being said a supplement of this size surely could have spared some room for sub races. When I opened the book I went straight to the new playable races. Number 1, Aasimar: three sub races! Let me tell you how excited this got me, only to be let down hard. I know Aasimar are sexy and everyone and their drake wanted a fully fleshed out and playable Aasimar blessed by the good folk at WotC. But there are some of us, I bet a good number, who are just as excited about playing Hobgoblins and Lizardfolk. The complete lack of sub races for every other playable race was disheartening and I don't understand why. Take Hobgoblins, an advanced race with culture, art (if you disagree just look at the artwork in the monsters manual and tell me their armour isn't artistic), advanced education in magic and warfare, and a strong caste system. I can't imagine a race that evolved without sub races. If you don't accept that argument then look at the Yuan-ti, a race that has three distinct entries in the Monster Manual but only one is playable. If any of the entries deserved sub races it was them.
2) The entire Monstrous Adventurers section.
Don't get me wrong, I wanted these stats bad and I'm happy to have them. There are six races in this section, Bugbear, Goblin, Hobgoblin, Kobold, Orc, and Tuan-ti; each with only a quarter page of information. To me, it is a bit confusing why these specific races are singled out as monstrous while the other races that appear in the Monster Manual (Kenku and Lizardfolk) get their own section. I hate to throw around the “R” word, but I’m pretty sure Sir Volo segregated the races here based on perceived alignment. And we all know that not every Drow is Evil… I would have prefered to see more racial information on these six entries for those of us who are inclined to play them.
I was a little confused as to why the Goliath race was even in this supplement when it exists verbatim in the Elemental Evil supplement, and then why only Goliath, why not Aarakocra, Deep Gnomes, and Genasi as well? The one and a half pages that were used to regurgitate this information to us could have been put to better use, and as a customer I feel very slightly ripped-off.
These three things are rank with laziness and I expected more from such an esteemed scholar as Volo. Then again I shouldn't be completely surprised as the depth of his research into some of the more interesting cities on the Sword Coast was also lacking.
But let's talk about the exciting bits now.
1) Kenku, Hobgoblins, and Lizardfolk.
I don't think I really need to say much more. I've always liked them as a playable race and was happy to finally have the stats.
2) Three Sub Races of Aasimar.
So sexy. I was impressed with the thought and creativity of the sub races, they are: Protector, Scourge, and Fallen. Given the diversity of mythology around celestial creatures (i.e. Angels) I was pleased to learn that not all Aasimar are equal. What I like most about the subraces are that they lead to a deeper understanding of Aasimar as creatures overflowing with energy threatening to burst out of them. It adds a touch of tortured soul to a player that, if used well in role-playing, can bring a lot to the game aside from the immediate benefits that unleashing this energy provides.
3) Additional role-playing tips. Specifically: "Roleplaying a Kenku," "Lizardfolk speech," and Tabaxi Obsessions and Quirks. These little sidebars will add a lot to the many players who will inevitably play one of these three races.
4) The entire Monster Lore chapter is flavour town for a DM.
You can make entire campaigns based around the cultural knowledge found in these sections. Some of my favourites are:
The "Outside Combat" entry in the beholder section is great for a DM like me. When I create the villain and their lair I like to know how they would have built or acquired it and then build my encounter(s) appropriately. This small section allows for a richly developed beholder boss and its lair. As a note I generally start from the end and build my campaigns backwards using the villain’s motivations and methods to construct a story with continuity.
"Beholder Variants." For those well seasoned adventuring parties who know exactly what to expect and plan for when fighting a beholder… not anymore (insert evil chuckle here).
The "Giant Tongue" section. I love this not just because it can add a lot of flavour text for DM’s to use when building a campaign around giants but it will also add tiny moments of fun (and continuity) around encounters with giants. Imagine the PCs are spying on giants and you deliver an entire sentence in giant speech while giving the player who speaks giant Volo’s Guide to decipher it. Pure gold! Oh yeah, and Goliaths speak giant and any Goliath PC can use this to create their own interesting role-playing moments.
The "Roleplaying a Giant" section is long and full of great stuff to add to giant campaigns and adventures. Including the specific sections on each giant race's Ordening. I enjoyed reading it and will enjoy weaving it into my next campaign.
5) Goblin Love.
I've always felt that not enough attention is paid to the humble Goblin. Not only can you now play them but you also have detailed cultural knowledge for deeper stories. If you’ve got no love for goblins and you just use them as fodder for your PCs you can now create individual and detailed War Bands for smaller encounters or as part of a broader story line.
6) Cultural Lore for Monstrous Adventurers.
This is where Volo redeemed himself to me, regarding the short and disappointing Monstrous Adventurers section. Each of the races that can be a Monstrous Adventurer has a corresponding section in the Monster Lore chapter. So for those of us who want to play a Hobgoblin, Lizardfolk, or Yuan-ti, we have a tonne of additional cultural information for a truly deep character, even if you don't get a separate sub race.
If you were hoping for a recommendation to purchase or not, I won’t give you that. For my games, this supplement will add a lot. I have found in its pages more than enough information to build entire campaigns and add a lot of memorable moments to specific encounters and side quests. For my players, they get 13 new races to play and advice on playing most of them. I hope this helps to inform your decision on if you should buy it or not. Either way I wish you good gaming.
Bryan is a 30 something coach and gamer in Edmonton, AB Canada. All he wanted for Christmas was more games. He is looking forward to playing his newest board game, Evolution, with his friends and wife as soon as humanly possible. But maybe, just a few notes on the next side quest, maybe warring Goblin tribes, or a beholder…. yeah a beholder will do the trick.
“Hey, remember when we took down…”
Good villains are absolutely necessary for a successful campaign in any gaming system. The heroes need a worthy foe to fight against. And the best villains will be the stuff of stories for years after the campaign has ended, the dice are put back in their tins, and the character sheets have been recycled. A villain that is nothing more than a stat block is a disservice to both players and the DM who runs such an abomination.
A good villain can make or break any campaign - from D&D to Star Wars to Pathfinder, Exalted to Shadowrun, and everything in between. Good villains are hard to find, but not terribly difficult to create if you follow a few simple guidelines. In the words of Tom Hiddleston in the “Art of Villainy” commercials, “world domination begins with attention to detail.”
The best villains can get the heroes to waver in their beliefs. They need to be charismatic, compelling, confident, and competent - the four Cs of a good villain. They can have an air of understated threat or menace, or they can be overt and belligerent, but they need to have that je ne sais quoi, that little something extra that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
Think Hiddleston’s Loki, Emperor Palpatine, or Doctor Doom. They are real characters, with understandable motives, goals, and storylines of their own; basically any villain that has their own fandom works as a strong example here. People can relate to villains if you give them a character they can empathise with - and the memorable villains are the ones that have people cheering for them against their will. Maybe they are cruel, demented sadists who secretly funnel large amounts of money to kitten rescues and foster children. Think a villain with a good PR campaign.
In a Shadowrun campaign I once ran, the villain was so beloved by the people of his city that any time the runners worked against him, they ran so hard into public opinion that they almost started riots. It’s the old Roman philosophy of bread and circus - if the villain is the one keeping the people happy (think Doctor Doom here, to follow the example), the people are likely to support him, which adds an entirely new level to the difficulty of your campaign.
It can be really hard to sway public opinion for your players when the dread lord who puts people’s heads on spikes also sends around the grain wagons after a bad harvest and supplies the roast oxen for every village holiday - or the oligarch who owns the politicians just gave their city gigabit fiber optic Internet, free for anyone with a smart device.
This is where you can really connect with the deeper sides of your players - we’ve all been overshadowed by a more popular person (Loki), reached a point of frustration where we are certain that everything would just be fine if people would simply do as we say (Palpatine, or if you prefer, the Goblin King from Labyrinth), or that we truly know better than a vast majority of people when it comes to handling a certain situation (Doctor Doom).
Remember, every villain is the hero of their own story - and your heroes are their villains.
The best, most insidious villains can cause the heroes to doubt themselves; to make them question their beliefs and wonder if they are truly on the right side. A villain should be used as an agent of growth, something to make the heroes who are facing them stronger.
Your villain needs to be able to have a commanding presence - when he/she talks, people listen. They have instant command of the room or situation, and woe betide those who seek to lessen that control. Their reactions to those who attempt to lessen the control can be very telling and make them more well-rounded; do they bite their tongue when an important ally tells them something they don’t want to hear, or is it blood spray on the walls if someone coughs at an inopportune moment?
One of my very favorite villains (and it’s a stretch to call him a villain in my eyes) is Lord Vetinari, from the Discworld novels. He tends to use words as his weapons, despite being a trained Assassin. “Don’t let me detain you” has two entirely different meanings, depending on enunciation.
The villain needs to have the utmost confidence in his or her own powers and moral certainty that what they are doing is for the greater good, either their own or that of the world as a whole. The less selfish he or she is, the more believable and engrossing the character is.
How many times have we seen a deus ex machina come into play by a lazy or inept GM or author, when the villain just “happens” to drop their staff/break their sword/be out of a key ingredient for a spell/get eaten by a large bony dragon just as the adventurers feared all hope was lost?
No one wants to beat up the bumbling idiot, whereas everyone wants to defeat the apocalyptic menace that is hellbent on destroying all creation. Somewhere in the vast and mighty depths of the Internet is an ancient, hoary tome of a website called Peter's Evil Overlord List. I highly recommend anyone designing a villain to give it a look-see. You’ll get some marvelous ideas and at least a couple of good solid laughs. For example:
“Whatever my one vulnerability is, I will fake a different one. For example, ordering all mirrors removed from the palace, screaming and flinching whenever someone accidentally holds up a mirror, etc. In the climax when the hero whips out a mirror and thrusts it at my face, my reaction will be ‘Hmm...I think I need a shave.’”
If you keep these four C’s in mind when creating your next villain (or anti-hero, I’m not one to judge), I think you will have a far better chance at creating a memorable character that your players will love to hate for years to come.
PS: Have some other examples of memorable villains? Something that you would like to add? Comments are welcome.
Georgia is a writer, editor, gamer, and mad culinary priestess who masquerades as a courier and personal cook while her plans for world domination slowly come together. She lives in Tacoma, Washington, with her husband and Feline Overlords. She can be reached through Facebook at In Exquisite Detail or on Twitter at @feraldruidftw.
One of the unique ways of mechanically fleshing out a character in Pathfinder is background traits. These mini feats, as they've sometimes been called, allow you to gain small bonuses based on your character's history. You can pick two, and they represent your experience in combat, society, religion, faith, and half a dozen other areas. While there are a lot of common traits you find on characters time and time again (like Reactionary, which gives you a +2 trait bonus on Initiative checks, or Magical Knack, which increases your caster level by 2 up to your character level), there are some traits you rarely see.
Sometimes it's because those traits don't offer a big enough bonus compared to others. Sometimes it's because they're in books your table doesn't use. And, rarely, it's because a trait is considered the wrong genre, and is banned for being too sci-fi. If you've been looking for some fun traits to make your new character a little different, here are 5 you should check out.
Trait #1: Blood Steed
I discovered this trait while writing my character conversion for Khal Drogo from A Song of Ice and Fire. A character with Blood Steed comes from a nomadic culture, and begins play with a combat-trained light warhorse. You can ride this horse bareback as if it had a saddle, and this horse can fend for itself in all but the harshest conditions. Even cooler, when you step out of a settlement and whistle, your horse arrives in 1d6 minutes.
Perhaps the coolest feature of this trait, though, if your horse dies you can return to your people, and hold a rite for the horse's spirit. This costs 100 gold in herbs and materials, and when it is over you receive a new horse.
This is a great trait if you're a character who depends on their mount, and you want some extra insurance that your DM won’t just drop a rock on your pony.
Trait #2: Awakened From Stasis
This one gets the side-eye from DMs on two levels; it's sci-fi and offers a ridiculous benefit.
This trait states that you recently awoke in a cavern with no memory of how you got there. There were dozens of other creatures, all asleep in glass eggs. Huge, construct crabs attended to you, and all the others. As a result of your time in stasis, you receive the benefits of 8 hours of rest after sleeping for only 2 hours.
Most people need a magic item, or at least a class feature, to mimic that. If your DM lets you take traits from People of The Stars, this is a solid choice.
Trait #3: Possessed
Put simply, you were, or are, possessed by something. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you can peek into the information it normally keeps to itself.
This trait lets you make a single Knowledge check once per day, even if you are untrained in that particular skill. If you could normally make an untrained check in this skill, you get a +2 trait bonus on the check.
This is a story-rich trait for any class, but given the sheer number of characters who have some truck with outsiders it has even more potential. A summoner, medium, or spiritualist would be the obvious choices for this trait, but conjurers, witches, and oracles may also find it helps boost their story. This trait would also be a natural lead-in for characters who acquire the possessed corruption, or for characters who will acquire the Possessed Hand feat tree.
Trait #4: Student of Philosophy
Bruising Intellect is a fairly common trait among Intelligence-based characters because it lets you use your Intelligence modifier in place of your Charisma modifier when making Intimidate checks. Student of Philosophy is similar, in that it allows you to apply your Intelligence modifier to Diplomacy checks to persuade people, and Bluff checks to convince someone that a lie is true.
Since we're all here for escapism, there are surely players out there whose fantasy is to be able to persuade other people through logic and reasoning... right?
Trait #5: Mutant Eye
As unsettling as it is useful, you have a third eye growing out of your forehead. If it is uncovered and open, you gain a better sense of the world, and emotions, of the people around you. This grants you a +2 bonus on Sense Motive checks, and that bonus becomes +4 on checks to determine whether or not someone is currently under a mind-affecting effect. It is off-putting looking at someone with a third eye, though, and as long as it's exposed and open, you take a -1 penalty on Bluff and Diplomacy checks against humanoids who can see it.
A good thing to have if you are the party's lie detector... even if it is a little blood curdling.
For more great gaming insights, check out Neal F. Litherland's blog Improved Initiative!
Religion in the genre of fantasy has become such a staple, so normative, that the very few fantasy novels I can think of that had no religion or had atheistic cultures stand out as odd and unusual. Religion just works so well in fantasy. The genre of fantasy is our modern way of creating a fictional mythology and what would mythology be without the realm of gods and spirits?
I love religion. I believe my actual faith in my religion and how important it is in my own life inspires my own worlds to be filled with equally devoted, equally faithful people. Bringing religion to life in our fantasy role-playing can richly shape your gaming world and gives us amazing insight into the minds of our own characters and NPCs. Below are what I consider to be the four most import points for running a fantasy role-playing game with genuine and very human (or non-human) feeling cultures.
1- The Superstitious Masses
There is a terrific scene from the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. As bad luck descends upon the ship, the crew looks to the story of Jonah the Prophet and becomes convinced that like Jonah, God was bringing calamity upon their vessel because of something one of the ship’s junior officers had done. The combination of genuine belief in the almighty, ignorant superstition, and the mind games of desperate people drive the young officer to toss himself into the depths of the sea. The masses of our worlds are not theologians; they generally are only going to have a basic idea of the gods, spirits, or deified forces of their world. But their certain belief and uncertain understanding makes superstition a fantastic mindset to cast over peoples of our world settings. Our ancestors genuinely believed that changes in the weather, the outcomes of battles, even how long your shoes lasted for were due to the intervention of spirits and gods. Our fantasy characters can believe the same, even when (or especially when) they don’t understand how it all works.
2- The Terrifying Spiritists
It can be very easy for our adventurers to walk into a new culture like a 21st century anthropologist, understanding that very much indeed the local religion is important to the people, but it’s not real right? It’s merely a social construct is it not? What terrible mythology that makes for! It doesn’t take high challenge ratings and powerful abilities to make the shamans, druids, and priests of your world to evoke fear and demand respect from people of the world (and your lower level player characters). What if the people believed the druid had to make blood sacrifices to protect the village from evil spirits? Or the shaman could curse your first born to die? Better yet, what if you convinced your players it could happen? I don’t suggest that they must be evil, but I do suggest that they should be terrifying. The idea of a benevolent god and philanthropic clergy isn’t strictly unique to Judeo-Christian faith, but it is rather uncommon outside of it. Classical paganism or shamanism doesn’t typically exude warm fuzzies.
3- The Unified Church
This is how advanced civilizations tend to do religion. The classical pantheons of fantasy role playing with a shrine to every deity in every major city has never worked well for me. The economics of it make no sense. How a disconnected pantheon of minor gods could sustain any persistent orders just doesn’t add up. When deities are presented as an all you can eat buffet where you can take what you want and leave the rest, it feels kind of incongruous. I prefer a universal church with monasteries, cathedrals, and militant orders; something that unites the nations and becomes indivisible from empire; a Church that doesn’t exist alongside the political order, rather the church is indistinguishable from the political order. Think of the medieval Catholic Church which owned up to one third of the land in Europe, where popes crowned kings and bishops ruled over principalities. Or the Muslim Empires and Buddhist China as more examples of where scholastic and political elite were also the religious leaders of the land.
4- Miracles not spells
It really is a shame how temples and shrines often serve little use other than as instant healing shops to where a little gold can cure your fatigue and heal your wounds. It’s convenient, sure, but it’s in no way immersive. Spell lists, cast charges, mana pools... all this is necessary to the mechanics of many games. But please don’t let the characters (or worse, the world) view divine spells this way. I’m a huge fan our divine characters (and npcs if needed) being miracle workers: rare and mysterious people through whom the gods have decided to interact with nature. As a GM you can use a couple of tricks to accomplish this. Firstly, NPCs in the world should be amazed and filled with wonder any time a miracle happens, even it it only restores 1d8 hp. Add some theatrics to the spell: sounds and lights, clouds parting, and angelic voices singing. Secondly, if you do have divine casting NPCs, maybe limit their abilities and don’t have them work perfectly or predictably all the time. Keep everyone, even those with a rule book, wondering about the nature of the supernatural and the divine.
The biggest thing in all of this is to remember that religion is very real to the people of a fantasy world. How people express this reality can very much be borrowed from our own history and make for an amazing backdrop to any fantasy world.
Anthony is lifelong dreamer and hobbyist who approaches role-playing as one part storyteller and one part rules lawyer. Role-playing interests include world building, back stories, character accents and voices, and trying to keep his inner simulationist in check.
Welcome back to the Ravenloft Corner!
Veteran gamers are familiar with the horrible dread that accompanies every sudden fog, knowing it could whisk them away from their comfortable campaign setting and into the nightmare that is Ravenloft. This is far from an isolated event, of course: most of the iconic NPCs of the setting are drawn from one or more existing campaign worlds, including Darklords such as Soth, Harkon Lukas, and Hazlik. Faerun, Greyhawk, al-Qadim, Dragonlance, Birthright: all these realms and more have been harvested for human occupants to bring to the Demiplane of Dread.
However, the Mists are not limited to D&D settings--they can reach anywhere. This makes Ravenloft the ideal realm for crossover stories. The sinister possibilities are endless. Jedi, gunslingers, or mad scientists: the sky's the limit if you really want to bring elements from one game setting into your Ravenloft campaign.
Alternately, instead of bringing another game into Ravenloft, you can introduce Ravenloft to another setting. Back in the day, being snatched away to the Demiplane of Dread for a single adventure was a common enough occurrence that it even had a name: Weekend in Hell adventures. For many other tabletop RPGs, this type of adventure can be just the thing to break up a stale routine.
To get you started, here are a few of my favorite possibilities for locations that you could bring an NPC or two from without breaking the setting egregiously.
1 -Star Wars
While lightsabers and blasters would be horrendously out of place, a single force-user would not be. Imagine the horror for a Jedi who escaped Order 66 only to find himself consumed by a bizarre stellar phenomenon which spat him out in Ravenloft. Now alone, in a world without the technology to which he is accustomed, he must battle against strange and arcane threats, with the inescapable feeling that this entire realm throbs with the pulse of the Dark Side. He can always sense malignant beings pulling the strings behind seemingly mundane misfortunes, but can never quite pin down their presence. Of course, the Dark Side would be much easier to tap into in Ravenloft, presenting him with an eternal temptation of vast power in exchange for his allegiance.
2- Doctor Who
Although all the Time Lords in our universe are gone (save for a couple), there were many at one point. As a race with a penchant for getting themselves stuck in pocket dimensions or alternate universes, it's not inconceivable one of them could have made it to Ravenloft. (It seems quite likely that at least one of House's victims might have had the wherewithal to fashion some means to escape House's pocket dimension, albeit to the even-less-inviting environment of the Mists.) Stuck with only the technology of the era, such a being might embody the nobler instincts of their kind, traveling the domains and righting wrongs. Of course, they might also fall prey to the obsession and hubris that frequently grips their race, drifting towards Mordent and the possibility of finding a way home amid the 'new science' of Dr. Mordenheim.
3- World of Darkness
Even without the Mists capturing someone against their will, the World of Darkness has plenty of ways for an unwitting character to find their way to Ravenloft. The Deep Umbra, the Far Realms, and arcane accidents of any variety could land a character in the setting. Characters from Vampire: The Dark Ages or Werewolf: The Wild West wouldn't even find themselves horribly out of place. Many tradition mages or changelings would be right at home as well. A pack of werewolves would have the fight of their lives in Verbrek, where virtually every inhabitant is fighting on the same level as they are. On the other hand, how much more dangerous would Strahd be while served by a small clan of Revenants, their own innate disciplines augmented by his potent blood?
Another setting with many gateways to alternate settings (crossovers with Call of Cthulu and Werewolf aren't just possible, they're canon adventures), posses from the Weird West could easily find their way to Ravenloft. Perhaps they even discover some dark connection between the Dark Powers and the Reckoners? Although their technology might be a bit out of place in, say, Darkon, the firearms of the period aren't so odd as to be fantastical to those of the western core. To fit with the diabolical nature of the realm, of course, 'black' magic such as hexes, mad science, and the undead abilities of the Harrowed should be more potent than normal, with the concurrent penalty of attention from the Dark Powers. Maybe it's even more likely to come back as Harrowed, if not so easy to maintain Dominion...
5- Harry Potter
Let's face it, magical accidents are obscenely common in the world of Harry Potter. Fortunately, magical denizens of that realm will find Ravenloft to be no huge adjustment. The need to hide themselves from non-magical beings will already be second nature, but the existence of the supernatural will be as well. In many ways, these witches or wizards might have an easier time blending in than outlanders from standard D&D settings do!
6- Warhammer 40k
While this one might seem unusual for such a high-sci-fi setting, it's actually fairly easy. Remember that the many worlds in the Imperium have a huge technological spectrum, broader even than that in Ravenloft. Characters from low-tech worlds (Inquisitorial retinues or Imperial Guard conscripts) make the easiest possibilities, since they are already ready to accept magic as fact, and are perfectly willing to accept having been pulled through a warp storm into a demon world with belief (although maybe not much happiness). The immensely powerful psychics of the Eldar race might send a single advance scout through a forgotten Webway gate, hoping to find a new location to colonize. Of course, such a scout could never report back and would be stranded in this strange new world. Perhaps most frightening is the notion of a transpossession victim manifesting not the aura of a succubus or the spikes of an osyluth, but the weeping sores of a plaguebearer or the mind-numbing allure of a keeper of secrets.
The world of the Mayhem game system bears much in common with Ravenloft and other D&D settings: there is a general medieval feel, the presence of magical beings, and a general lack of advanced technology. The Crimson Realms, as they are known, are far more open about their strangeness than other settings and Outlanders from that world would face several challenges. The bestial races would have to conceal their true nature, or be mistaken for escapees from the clutches of Frantisek Markov. The demonic and celestial races would be pursued diligently by hunters familiar with transpossession, or by Darklords, respectively. Even the fae or elemental races would find persecution in places like Darkon or Tepest.
That's far from an exhaustive list, of course. Crossover potential is ripe in some of the best known franchises of nerd culture, such as Game of Thrones, Wheel of Time, the Dark Tower series, or Middle Earth, as well as some more obscure ones that your PCs might not be familiar with, such as John Peel's Diadem series or the worlds of Robin Hobb. Whether you draw PCs or NPCs from such realms, crossovers remain an integral part of the Ravenloft formula, and the Weekend in Hell will remain a constant threat to PCs in any and every other game.
Hopefully, Frankie Drakeson will be back from his sabbatical next month, but until then, safe travels.
Jim Stearns is a deranged hermit from the swamps of Southern Illinois. In addition to writing for the Black Library, he puts pen to paper for High Level Games and Keep on the Heathlands. His mad scribblings can frequently be found in Quoth the Raven, as well as anthologies like Fitting In or Selfies from the End of the World, by Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearnswriter.
Ninety percent of the stories we know and love follow the outline of a popular piece of literary theory called the Monomyth. Now, before your eyes glaze over, you need to know that the Monomyth is the key to telling a good story. There are several things about role-playing games that tend to get in the way of telling a fulfilling story, usually by breaking the Monomyth. Whether you’re the GM or just a lowly player, knowing how the Monomyth works can help you to structure your game to maximize the fun for everyone involved.
I won't waste time explaining the Monomyth in great detail here, because there are much better summaries just a click away (like here or here). Basically, it outlines the journey that the hero of a story usually takes, and describes the events, characters, and sometimes the objects that appear in the story. Preserving a sense of story is worth many articles; but in this article I will focus on describing the ways that RPG games break the Monomyth, why that's a bad thing, and share some simple fixes to help you take your game to the next level.
1. Role-Playing Games Do Not Have a Single Hero; They Have Multiple Players Competing for the Spotlight
The Monomyth is a tidy story about one hero, but in most table-top games there is more than one player character. The problem is that usually everyone wants to be the hero of the story, at least some of the time. That's why stories that follow the Monomyth appeal to us; we all secretly want to be the hero. Too many heroes, though, will spoil a good story.
To get around this problem, create a situation for each character in which they are the hero, and then share the spotlight. For example, there might be a location in the game world or a story arc that specially features each character. If your group uses this strategy, be sure to give attention to each player long enough for them to tell part of their story. Give everyone a story arc or time in the spotlight because, after all, everyone wants to be the hero.
2. A Convincing Story Requires Multiple Supporting Characters, but Too Many Characters is Confusing
If you know about the Monomyth, you likely know that the hero adventures with and/or faces many characters during the course of the story. Where would Luke Skywalker be without Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, Han Solo? Or where would Frodo be without Gandalf, Boromir, Sam? Where would Dante be without Virgil, Satan, Beatrice... you get the idea. But if you have 6 heroes at the table, do you need 6 Ancient Mystagogues, 6 Threshold Guardians, and 6 Enemies? Very quickly, the GM could run out of space (or RAM) to run so many characters.
There are a few ways to manage this problem. You could choose other players to fulfill story roles. For character one, character two is their mentor. While for character two, character one is the trickster. This type of thing often happens quite naturally. Similarly, sometimes one character provides a role for the rest of the group: A wizened Cleric, for example, might be a mentor to most of the other characters. Supporting characters that are not covered by the group, but are not necessarily stand-alone characters (like the Threshold Guardian, for example) can be either inanimate objects (signs, messages, weapons) or nameless characters/monsters. Only after these possibilities are depleted will full-fledged NPCs be necessary.
3. Role-Playing Games Do Not Have a Clearly Defined Ending
This is one of the more challenging features of a sandbox-type RPG. The lack of a clearly defined goal or end point leaves the story unsatisfying sometimes; at the same time, however, the freedom to do whatever you want your character to do is what makes role-playing so much fun.
To fix the empty closure-less feeling, try building in an end game for your characters by giving them one overarching purpose. Be careful not to write a script for your character; just be sure that their goals and motivations are defined by whatever it is that they are trying to accomplish. If you reach the goal, you can choose to say a fond farewell to a character as they ride off into the sunset - or, you can create a new endgame, a new goal, each time the character completes the task at hand.
4. Role-Playing Game Plots are More Loosely Structured than the Monomyth.
Every GM who's ever led a campaign knows that even the best laid plans will be foiled as soon as there are players at the table. This presents a real problem because to maintain its integrity, a Monomyth story must follow a fairly well-defined structure: the call to adventure, the threshold, various challenges & temptations, the revelation/climax, and the return.
To account for these steps, often some of them can be written into a character’s backstory (e.g. the call to adventure & the threshold). Sometimes, if the group buys in, the whole group can follow a single adventure plot (this goes well when switching focus between characters, as mentioned in #1). A good GM won't railroad the Monomyth; if the plot is tied into a character’s primary motivation, there should be ample reason for the characters to get involved.
5. Role-Playing Rabbit Trails Derail the Story
Out of all the role-playing sessions I’ve witnessed, participated in, and heard via podcast, I have yet to see one where the players resist the urge to do something silly. Even the most serious players throw jokes around as their character speaks to that nobleman or defuses that climactic bomb. Other times, players will have their character do something to throw off the course of the story, such as attacking the innkeeper or abducting the messenger. These hijinx are a part of the fun of role-playing. If silliness becomes the focus of the game, however, the story will be lost and the game will be less fun.
Fortunately, there are some good ways to keep the story in focus. One is to have occasional character debriefings where, 10 minutes at the end of a session, the gamemaster asks questions of the player characters - what do they think or feel, are they getting closer or further from reaching their goal? This helps everyone maintain a sense of story while at the same time allowing for a few distractions.
Creating a great story makes role-playing more fun for everyone. There are many ways to do this (and many more articles to be written on the subject), and if you take the time to incorporate these into your games, you’ll be rewarded with rich shared story experiences that take your game to the next level!!
Landrew is a full-time educator, part-time art enthusiast. He applies his background in literature and fine arts to his favourite hobby (role-playing games) because the market for a background in the Fine Arts is very limited. He writes this blog on company time under a pseudonym. Long live the Corporation!
I’ve played Dungeons and Dragons for 12 years, DM’ed various campaigns for the last 8, and while I’ve heard of alluring storylines and tested the waters of other systems (specifically, Classic WoD and Star Wars d20), I’ve always come back to D&D. I cut my teeth on D&D 3.5, with a party of 3 players, and a library of about 50 books between us (including all 5 Monster Manuals, and the Draconomicon). During the days of 3.5, there was so much reading material (in the form of splatbooks) that I grew to appreciate any rule book which helped to develop the narrative, state of the world, or flesh out a particular region. “Volo’s Guide to Monsters” is like a 5e narrative dream come true.
1. Cheeky Sidenotes Break up the Sections - Between the competing narratives of Volo and Elminster, it’s hard to not chuckle to yourself while perusing the pages of this manual-cum-Grimm-Tale. That’s not really a word, or a portmanteau, I just made it up. Anyway. Starting at the beginning (as all good stories do), you are introduced to two competing, slightly egotistical guides who help color what can otherwise be a procedural book for DM’s. Their notes, like stray fragments of parchment shoved between the pages, lend either a word of warning to adventurers, a funny tale, or a different perspective on the beast currently being discussed. It makes the whole book feel more like reading an adventure, than a rule book.
2. It Is So Much More Than a Monster Manual –
In addition to the Bestiary – a fabulous collection of macabre species, some new, some old, some resurrected from previous editions – there are two other sections to the book. Volo, Elminster, and Wizards of the Coast, took their time to really delve boots-first into the history, society, inner workings, and motivations of some of the most iconic creatures (and end-boss options) D&D has to offer. In the Monster Manual proper, only Dragons truly got the “full work up” with ecosystems, motivations, and more than just the stat block and standard 3-6 paragraph write up. I live in those paragraph write-ups. They help fuel my curiosity and creativity to uncover new ways to blend creature alliances, shape story hooks and future plot lines, and really enrich the world that my PC’s really live in.
3. New Playable Races -
I can neither confirm nor deny if I squealed loudly at the discovery of entire pages dedicated to new playable races, with their societies, quirks, and history all mapped out and ready to use in character creation. WoTC has been releasing a steady stream of Unearthed Arcana, monthly PDF’s with races, classes, and class sub-types, with the distinct disclaimer that they had not been play-tested, might not yet be balanced, and are to be used at the DM’s discretion. There were no repeats of any of the Unearthed Arcana races in Volo’s Guide, and while there was a small disclaimer regarding balance, I’m no stranger to making odd things work. (Did I ever mention the flying Halfling PC I gamed with, Flitz?) These races may not be for the faint of heart, or cautious DM, but I’ve already used a Firbolg Druid as an NPC, because OMG CUTE GIANT NATURE GUY. Okay, end squee.
4. More Artwork for Existing Monsters -
If you are a visual-centric person, sometimes a tome heavy in text and light on illuminations can feel like a chore. Stat blocks are easy to pick up, and plunk down into an adventure wherever you need it. But stat blocks all on their own don’t carry the gravitas that a professional picture can. I am a fan of obscuring most of the page, save the image, and showing it to my players, simply stating “This is what you see” and allowing their reactions to fuel the encounter (I don’t need a hype-man, they bring their own hype, man). I’m usually met with sounds of dread, horror, and the occasional shaking of boots. I have grown to appreciate, even enjoy, the temporary dismay of my players, as I know it’ll mean the victory will be all the sweeter for them.
5. New Monsters, Re-Skins, and Resurrections -
Originally, I was going to use my final point to mention one monster that truly got me excited to use them in my next session. Maybe Redcaps, tiny Evil Fey in all of their shin-kicking glory? Or Cave Fishers, the Underdark’s wolf spider/scorpion lovechild, with moonshine for blood. Or CAT PEOPLE. Because that’s OFFICIALLY a THING that I ENJOY. A LOT. (No, I did not exclusively play Khajit in Skyrim… I don’t know what you’re talking about…) There are a slew of monsters from previous editions, including some that haven’t seen the light of day since Second Edition, enough to get any fan fired up. But, I don’t have another 797 words available to truly touch on all my favorites, so this sampling will have to suffice.
Ultimately, I think Wizards of the Coast have been cranking out incredible supplemental materials since D&D 5e was first released, and I can absolutely appreciate the over-arching narrative they have created through their modules. However, all of those previous purchases were useful to me for the appendices, those little footnotes about new creatures, new items, and ways to help shape my own setting. They were crumbs cast from the loaf I was yearning for. Volo’s Guide to Monsters gave me the full course, with the trimmings, and I can contentedly say that I am satisfied. I can continue to hope, however, that this new narrative direction continues, as I’m bound to hunger for more knowledge again.
Angela Daurio has run out of words to type up a more complete biography. She is a Dungeons and Dragons 5e DM and player, with a soft spot for weird creatures, including her cats and her friends.
The writers at White Wolf and Onyx Path Publishing are poets and philosophers, first and foremost. Each experience is meant to challenge the player and storyteller to explore, without limits, the nature of “otherness.” Characters walk cautiously through the uncanny valley, tiptoeing along the line that separates the peaks of humanity and the depths of monstrosity. Mage: The Awakening promises the player a chance to see the supernatural through (mostly) human eyes, while giving them the power to change things as they see fit. Most Chronicles of Darkness games are receiving an update after the base book got its second edition, and Mage is no exception. The 2nd edition released relatively recently, and I’ve since had a chance to read through it rather extensively. Does the new edition add more to what made the first so incredible, or does it tip the delicate balance that the creators established in their original work? Here are a few key differences between the two iterations that should help us answer that question.
1 . Spellcasting
Mage: the Awakening holds aloft creativity in the same way that Dungeons and Dragons heralds adventure. Both editions of the White Wolf game emphasize imaginative spellcasting; the spells in the book are merely examples of what one can achieve with each new level of knowledge. The two books differ in this area in the way that spells are cast. The first edition is somewhat less complex. Players need only roll their Gnosis (overall magical knowledge) plus Arcanum (area of expertise) when they wish to cast a spell, accounting for Paradox (otherworldly complications) if the spell is vulgar or obvious. Successes accrued after rolling make the spell more powerful, so if the player doesn’t wish to tinker too much with a simple spell, they have only one or two steps to consider. One must account for increased spell factors such as size of target or area of effect, but simple spells eschew these additional factors. If the player knows the spell by Rote, they have a different dice pool altogether.
In the second edition, the player has a few more things to consider. If they wish for Potency, or power, of a spell to be increased, they must take a dice penalty prior to casting. This same concept applies to any other factors that they may wish to increase, such as area of effect or size of the target. They must then consider whether they wish to Reach or not, that is increasing the spells factors by a significant jump or adding special effects. Is the spell one of your Praxes? Take that into consideration as well prior to casting. Rotes make a comeback, but in second edition are a bit simpler, only adding dice instead of changing the dice pool drastically. The upside to the added complexity is a more complete toolbox for building the exact spell you wish to cast. It may take a bit longer to get your dice pool together, but once you’ve compiled everything, you know exactly what’s going to happen if you succeed or fail. That is, unless you trigger a…
2 . Paradox
Paradox occurs, in both versions, when a spell goes awry and invites the chaotic influence of the Abyss into the world. In the first edition, Paradox had specific effects that altered reality if the Mage cast their magic in front of mundane witnesses (here called Sleepers) or used certain “vulgar” spells. The Mage could then contain the Paradox, letting it eat away at their physical body, or let it loose into the world and triggering one of several deleterious effects. In second edition, the concept is similar, yet the rules have changed significantly. Paradox is caused by a Mage overreaching his or her means, or by casting a spell that is obviously magic in front of Sleepers. Here, instead of certain spells always triggering Paradox, the Mage is safe if he or she casts the spells in secret. Even so, Paradox can be mitigated by once again containing it within the Mage’s body, spending Mana (the game’s mystical currency), or releasing it into the world as before. When the Mage contains Paradox in the second edition, however, they have a chance of taking damage, but moreover they gain a Paradox condition, which alters the way their mystical resonance affects the world. When they release it, the Storyteller is encouraged to create a temporary reality-damaging effect that fits with the spell being cast. The main difference between these two systems is a renewed emphasis on creativity. Instead of limiting the Storyteller to a few printed effects, second edition leaves the creating up to the narrator. This is a welcome change, as it makes Paradox less frequent but far more interesting.
3 . History
The history of magic and those who wield it is presented quite similarly in both games. There are distinctions, however, in how the information is presented. In the first edition, nearly all Mages accept the history of Atlantis, a magical city or civilization in a time before time. There, Mages ruled and kept the world in balance. There was a sundering, of course, and certain selfish Mages separated the world into several parts, including the mundane ( Fallen) world that we experience, and the Supernal world. Between them lies the Abyss, a chasm of chaotic unreality that seems to possess a will of its own. The story is one of good versus evil, or more accurately, of the humble versus the prideful. Hubris is the sin of the Mages, and in first edition, it is what makes Mages into monsters.
In the second edition, this history is retold but is left vague. Is Atlantis part of the great Lie that is the Fallen world? Many Mages believe so, while others think of Atlantis as a metaphor for the time before The Sundering. In second edition, Mages are monsters not only due to their Hubris, but because of their Obsessions (note all these capital letters). When a will-worker learns of a Mystery, they cannot simply sit idle and let it fester. They must learn, and this need soon becomes the driving force in the Mage’s life. They will often forsake relationships, duties, and necessities in order to study their Obsession. They often view people as obstacles in their goal to understand the Mysteries, and will bypass or even eliminate these obstacles as a programmer might delete a flawed line of code. The history of the Mages as a Mystery in second edition, in my opinion, makes it all the more effective and helps to establish our next key difference.
4 . Tone
When Mage: The Awakening was first in my hands all these years ago, I marveled at its openness. Most games have magic systems that are clearly defined and limited, often for the sake of balancing mystical classes with the mundane. Mage had no such constraint. If you could dream it, you could do it. The rules were present only to guide you to that end, and to make it so that you couldn’t annihilate reality during the first session (that’s reserved for the last session, typically). As such, the tone of first edition is that of wonderment and philosophical exploration. Players are encouraged to test their powers, albeit within their Sanctums and away from prying eyes. In second edition, players are instead naturally encouraged to work their magic when they feel they need to seek out the nature of the Mysteries. Second edition is about discovery; discovery of self and of the proverbial “other.” It asks how far will we go to learn, and challenges us to go farther than we would in our own lives. The game questions our morality, not in the traditional sense, but in a fundamental sense. Does morality apply to a being not of this world? Does a mind make the person, or is it the Soul? That which drives us places us in danger, but also fulfills us in the end. How far are we willing to go for that fulfillment, that sense of catharsis?
Both editions certainly have their strengths and weaknesses, and I cannot say definitively which is superior. If you don’t have the updated base book for Chronicles of Darkness, you may be best off with the original, as you’ll have more supplementary material to work with. However, if you’re interested in the new system, I highly recommend it. A lot of the fluff material is the same, so you can apply old supplements (to an extent) to the new game. Either way, I hope you get a chance to enjoy this incredible, visceral, imaginative magical experience.
David Horwitz is a gamer and freelance writer with an obsession for exploring new forms of leisure. If you’re looking for an inquisitive mind and a deft hand, or just want to chat about gaming, contact him at www.davidhorwitzwrites.com/contact . He’s the ST for his Mage game, but would most likely play a Mastigos if given the chance.
Taking from a great number of resources to help create a fun character is an age-old tradition. From literary works borrowing classic foils, reworking of film characters, Commedia dell'arte in theatre, and satire, there is no end to options for reworking old ideas into new. Here are some quick and easy places to draw inspiration and then make your own.
1. Sleuth and Detective
Borrow from Dick Tracy, Sherlock Holmes, or go more modern and create a new Gregory House, Bones, or maybe it was Murder, She Wrote. Listen, if Star Trek can work it into their world, you can work it into yours.
You can go dark and mysterious, with someone with a large edge to them. Or you can work with the sympathetic villainous type like Severus Snape. Search comic book villains for inspiration or even fairy tale villains. You don't even have to play them completely evil. But steal their motivations, their way of speaking, or their backstory to get your character started.
Everyone loves an anti-hero for interest. Your Han Solo, Captain Jack Sparrow, or Beetlejuice from film are a decent place to start. Or you can reach for your bookcase and pull out Huck Finn or even Macbeth. But this isn't even close to a complete list of possibilities in this genre, you can google various lists of the best anti-heroes ever. Embrace the duality of these iconic characters and make them your own.
4. Commedia dell'arte
Go really “old school” and look for these italian theatre tropes. They all have a classic posture, way of moving, motivation, and relationship with other characters. There is so much depth in these stock characters that you can see these used over and over again throughout the fictional world. Maybe you want to try out Pantalone, whose greed and focus on money was mimicked by Scrooge. You could pull from one of the overly dramatic Innamorati lovers who are beautiful, not bright, and are in love with the idea of being in love. There is no end to the ideas to pull from these classics.
As you can see, you can borrow from almost anywhere. Ask yourself, what are some movies, books, and popular culture that have influenced you? Find your favourite characters and get to moulding them.
This article was written by Vanessa who is a sarcastic, 30-something wife and mother. She likes things and stuff, but not simultaneously. When she isn’t involved in things and stuff, she teaches middle school science, math, art, and other random subjects. She loves new teenagers in action. They make her laugh and shake her head and her world is much better with laughter. She thinks everyone should be roleplaying. She is also trying out this new twitter handle at @sarasma_nessa
I’m a huge historical and alternative history fan. The large majority of alternative history on the market centers around disruptions in the US Civil War time frame or in Medieval Europe. However, I’ve also recently read a great book about an alternative Rome, where Julius Caesar wasn’t killed on the Ides of March. You can find that book here on Amazon. I highly recommend it. Now, the suggestions below are for books and eras that I don’t believe already have a setting. If you know of one that uses them, please let me know because I’d be excited to learn about them!
1) Jean Auel’s Earth Children/Clan of the Cave Bear:
Imagine a prehistoric setting where Modern Man and Neanderthal Man were in competition for resources. Now imagine Modern Man is part of a society where sexual equality and gender equality were much closer than we see in modern society. This society is enlightened sexually and permissive and accepting of trans and non-gender conforming people, as well as being highly mystical. The society of Neanderthal Man is highly gender conformed due to the specializations of brains that the author explains they possessed. You see, Neanderthals or Flat Heads or the Clan as they are known in the world, per Mrs. Auel, have the ability to retain genetic memory going all the way back to the beginning of life on the planet. Modern Man, in contrast is quicker to gain new knowledge but they lack the ability to remember things in the same way. The world is deep, engrossing, and could easily be built into a Savage Worlds or Fate campaign.
2) Harry Harrison’s The Hammer and the Cross:
Unless you are a major Viking Age history geek… like… me… you probably aren’t familiar with the aspects of this series that are historical and which are outright fictitious. It gets easier after the first book, but the first book on the surface appears to be a historical fiction novel set during the time of the Danelaw in Northern England. Shef is a young slave that rises in social status by making alliances with the invading Vikings, and eventually becomes Emperor of the North. Factoid: there was never an Emperor of the North, but damn there are times I wish there was. On top of this, there is a resurgence in the Norse faith, reorganized and centralized to mimic some of the more Monotheistic faiths; it acts as a counter-point to the rise of Catholicism in Northern Europe. So you have a world where Norse Paganism and Christianity are more equally matched, and the gods seem to interact with humanity at turns and starts. I’d run a game set in this world using the Chronicles of Darkness system and possibly a modified Dungeons and Dragons.
3) Harry Turtledove’s Southern Victory:
This series is much more about people than it is about anything else. Turtledove can write stories about families with no connections to power, and stories about those in the Presidency and other similar positions. These stories weave together to build a powerful narrative. I think there are now 4-5 trilogies in this timeline that begin with the South winning the US Civil War. It ends with a Fascist Government rising to power in the Confederacy during the same time frame in which Nazi Germany rose, and it dives into some dark and terrifying places. This creates a deep, immersive alternative history world that doesn’t need supernatural enemies to bring horror to life, but I think it would be interesting to use some of those elements in Turtledove’s reflection of America. Running a Achtung! Cthulhu game in the Southern Victory world would be interesting, as would running Call of Cthulhu, or classic World of Darkness.
So, there you have some suggestions for alternative history/historical fictional worlds in which you could run some RPG campaigns. This is nowhere near an exhaustive list of options and ideas. Which worlds would you be interested in running a campaign for? What historical fiction novels give you great ideas?
With 17 years of playing rpgs, Josh started with Mind's Eye Theater LARPs and loves the World of Darkness. He recently launched,www.keepontheheathlands.com to support his gaming projects. Josh is the administrator of the Inclusive Gaming Network on Facebook. He’s a player in Underground Theatre’s and One World By Nights Vampire LARPs and is running both a Mage game and a Dark Ages: Vampire game. He’s a serious advocate for inclusive gaming spaces, a father, and a recent graduate from the International Peace and Conflict Resolution graduate program at American University in Washington, D.C.
If you're like me – an avid Firefly, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and basically every (subjectively) good sci-fi and fantasy saga out there fan – this is a pretty good time to be alive.
If you're also running a Star Wars campaign at the moment, even better.
I am and – fresh off the adrenaline resulted from having seen Rogue One twice, and gearing up for a third – I thought I'd dig into what you can get out of the movie. not only as a GM, but also as a player (i.e. understanding more of what goes into putting one of these things together).
And trust me, there's plenty!
Ensemble RPG parties (what I see as 5 or more people) can sometimes be hard to tackle - with multiple personalities clashing, people tugging wildly at the strings of your carefully tuned plot, several characters vying for the spotlight at the same time, and even inter-player struggles, there are plenty of chances for things to go Force up really bad, really fast. Like... 0.75x Hyperdrive fast.
Rogue One balances a diverse and numerous cast of characters, and actually manages to make them all gel; to get the viewer invested in each and every one in various ways.
From spaceballs to the walls moments, to one-liners or pure, unadulterated badassdom, to me writing this piece in order to geek out over the Star Wars movie we deserve and the one we need right now, here are the Rogue One standout items that we can bring to our tables.
Mild spoilers ahoy. Ye be warned.
1. The Context
Whenever starting a campaign out, and this includes one-shots, I find background – no matter how small – can greatly help with the events that will follow. Rogue One has a motley first half an hour with multiple characters being thrown at the viewer rapidly during several timelines in order to build somewhat of a basis for the movie to benefit from later on. However quickfire and fragmented this might seem, this is exactly how a campaign should start out – a minimum of 2 question need answering: 'Who are you?' and 'Where do you come from?' That should have you up and running quickly with not a lot of effort, and maybe give you a goal to aim for.
Maybe even shoot first.
2. The References
It helps to keep a campaign, in a pre-existing setting, grounded if you sprinkle places/scenes with known elements from said setting. They don't have to always be front and centre, and they definitely don't need to be something that everybody is 100% familiar with; that's half the fun of pushing and prodding your players, getting to know them even if for the short time that the one-shot lasts. These references will also give you a better sense of who and what makes them tick, something that you can use/exploit later on.
Be it secondary characters that are instantly recognisable, extras that are instantly recognisable, or even drinks that are borderline iconic, if you know your setting you're bound to be able to throw some nods around and have those that know the universe snicker and the newbies scratch their heads.
Either way, you'll know.
3. The Moment
Role-playing game characters are like good one-liners: they're a part of a greater story, but it's them and their smash-hit moments that you'll be left with after all's said and done. It's up to the characters to pick their moment, but it's up to you as a GM to offer them the chance to pick the one they like best, the one they feel they have to step up at. Be it conflict, dialogue, or just looking like a badass soldier born and bred in blaster fire having to always look after his overly-mystically-inclined monk of a friend, diversity is what you should go for here.
Every character sees 'the moment' in their own way. Their background along with their actions during the session/campaign should set you up rather nicely in allowing them that shot at greatness.
If you manage to give each and every one of your characters a stand-out scene, you're one step closer to pulling off the perfect one-shot. This will also make everyone feel like they're an important cog in the greater machine you've put together, and that's really what role-playing parties are all about, right?
That and chucking dice around, really.
And Monty Python references. In space.
4. The Pretty Pictures
The hardest part of tabletop role-playing is bringing incredible vistas, breathtaking locales, and outrageous landscapes to mind. And that's even before you have to deal with the scum and villainy.
The more vibrant you are in your descriptions, the more senses the players use in imagining what lies before their characters, and the more successful you'll be in summoning that oh-so-important feeling of the session leaning more towards reality than make-believe.
This is a general piece of advice for any and all RPG sessions really, but one-shots will benefit from this even more in the long run because you'll be giving the players yet another layer of detail to keep in mind once it's all done and dusted, which is pretty quick in this case.
5. The Memorable Baddies
Villains are always hard to tackle, and come in a variety of shapes, tropes, and sizes throughout role-playing. Be it the tortured, somewhat redeemable soul, the vicious, power-hungry overlord that will stop at nothing to ensure their domination, or just the classic two-faced friend who's biding their time until the backstab deals as much damage as possible and gets that surprised target bonus, we've pretty much heard of/experienced all there is to see in this department.
So how can you make your villain memorable? Look outside of their motivation.
Give them a recognisable personality trait, a speech quirk, one of the aforementioned moments (why not have them execute some innocents, and subsequently have a don't-mess-with-me-here's-a-countdown-of-things-I've-already-destroyed moment that the characters may somehow be privy to). Give them an intra-faction baddie-on-baddie power struggle to deal with, that always seems to make these buggers seem more humane... ish.
If all else fails, you can always reference a greater villain from within the universe, inserting them in just a couple vignettes within the session, and having the final scene of the one-shot overshadow everything that's come before and leave everyone wishing it wasn't over...
6. The... Bothans?
Whichever way you choose to go with a one-shot, if you're stepping into a greater universe just for this occasion, there's one other very important thing you need to figure out/remember: your players might know the Universe inside and out, maybe even better than you!
GMs should always be prepared, over-prepared, and still expect the unexpected, especially when a solitary session is concerned, otherwise you may end up on an entirely different note than originally intended. If you can swing that around and make it meaningful, all the better, but remember that 4-5 other minds put together will somehow figure out a way to swing things back around in such a way that you'll probably be faced with a possibility you never even fathomed.
Know your setting, know your timeline, and then be prepared for your players to do anything and everything in their power to really make the one-shot theirs.
And also know that the Bothans died when getting the information regarding the second Death Star...
So that's most of what I think you should learn from Rogue One as a GM. The rest (i.e. the characters feeling like a part of the setting, having great chemistry, and generally being more than memorable) lies with the characters and how they manage to use everything you've thrown at them.
Players – do your best to help everyone get a better experience out of this all.
And if you've somehow forgotten (thought I don't see how you could), if in doubt, remember the mantra: You're one with the Force, the Force is with you!
Writer, gamer, and - provided he's got the time for it - loving husband, Costin does not rule out sacrifices to the Great Old Ones in order to get into the gaming industry. He's been role-playing for the better part of 6 years, but has been a joker, gamer and storyteller for as long as he can remember.
His greatest pride is once improvising a 4-way argument between a grave digger, a dyslexic man, an adopted child and a sheep, all by himself. That moment is also the closest he's ever come to giving himself a role-playing aneurysm... thus far.
He's been dabbling in plenty of writing ventures lately, and you can find him hanging his words around the OhBe Wandering hangout page on Facebook - https://goo.gl/4be3Bj
Since HLG is interested in promoting ways in which we can make gaming experiences more inclusive for all players, I’m here to teach you a thing or two about how to do that for LGBTQ folks. Step one is familiarizing yourself with terminology that’s often used to describe gender and sexual orientation. As I’m sure you’re aware, using the “wrong” terminology for a group of people can be quite embarrassing if you’re the one making the faux pas, and cringe-worthy if you’re a witness (think of grandma still referring to Asian people as “Orientals”), and pretty hurtful if you’re a member of a marginalized group.
Intentionally or unintentionally using the wrong terminology for a person in casual conversation is called a “micro-aggression” – it still causes harm, but is less severe than, say, housing discrimination. However, a steady stream of micro-aggressions combined with the threat or lived experience of physical harm is like “very small drops of acid falling on a stone” (Brown, 2008). Each drop may not do much harm on its own, but further weakens the integrity of the stone to the next drop. Micro-aggressions also exacerbate pre-existing mental health problems in marginalized groups; and as many studies (Haas, et al., 2011; Mustanski, et al., 2010; Almeida, et al., 2008; Bostwick, et al., 2014) have shown, LGBTQ folks have higher rates of traumatic experiences (e.g. sexual assault, physical violence, other forms of discrimination) and mental health problems than heterosexual, cisgender people.
So if you care about your LGBTQ players, perpetuating micro-aggressions at your table is probably not the cool thing to do. If you don’t, then perhaps go find another article. If you’re writing LGBTQ characters, you want them to be believable, which means getting into their fictional headspace. But, the situation in the LGBTQ community is pretty much a minefield when it comes to terminology. So here’s a fancy-pants guide from your resident queer lady gamer based off of American Psychological Association guidelines to help you through! Note: even after reading this article, you will probably mess some things up. The best course of action in this scenario is to make a brief apology and move on.
1). Use Whatever Terms and Pronouns Your Player Asks You to Use For Them.
If you’re writing a character, it’s probably best for you to use the “non-controversial” terms to describe them, especially if there’s someone at the table who’s LGBTQ. Read: don’t use queer or other “reclaimed slurs” as labels for your NPCs/PCs if you’re not of that persuasion in real life and LGBTQ players at the table haven’t indicated whether they’re cool with those terms or not. Having storylines around changing someone’s sexual orientation without their consent using magic (I’m looking at you, Fire Emblem), or including tropey “predatory LGBTQ” characters probably isn’t the best idea if your goal is to not perpetuate societal harms against LGBTQ folks in your games.
2). Dat Acronym:
LGBTQ stands for “Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer” but there have been some pushes to change it around quite a bit (either by making it a double “Q” to separately denote queer and questioning, an “I” for intersex, a double “A” for asexual and agender, and a “P” for pansexual). I affectionately refer to it as alphabet soup for this reason. Personally, I think it’s fine as it stands, because transgender and queer are umbrella terms & encompass what people want to add. But, if you see the expanded version(s), now you know what these terms stand for.
3). Gender Stuff:
Now that we’ve covered what each thing in the acronym stands for, we’ll unpack the gender stuff. Transgender, like I said before, is an umbrella term, and encompasses people who don’t identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. So brief review; sex and gender are two separate, but related, things. Sex or “biological sex” usually refers to chromosomes, primary and secondary sex characteristics, and gender is the set of societal expectations for behavior that we place on people based on their perceived sex. People whose gender identity matches up with the “biological sex” they were assigned at birth are known as “cisgender,” from the Latin “on this side of”; those whose gender does not match with their biological sex are called “transgender.” These are often abbreviated as “cis” and “trans.”
However, things with sex are not as cut and dry as you think they are! Occasionally, people are born with “ambiguous” sex; that is, they might have chromosomes of one sex, but the primary sex characteristics of the opposite sex. These people are known as “intersex.” Even among non-intersex people, the things that “make” us one sex or the other can vary greatly; women with polycystic ovarian syndrome have elevated androgen or “male” hormone levels but we still consider them “women.” The transgender umbrella encompasses people who want to pursue medical sex reassignment (sometimes these folks are called transsexual, but, this can be a loaded term for some), people who don’t identify with any gender (also known as agender), and people whose gender identity fluctuates (genderqueer or genderfluid). Side note: use of the singular “they” is now back in vogue (shout-out to the OG Bard, Shakespeare for the use of this); if you’re not sure of someone’s preferred pronouns you can always refer to them by the singular “they” to avoid misgendering them.
4). Sexuality Stuff:
The term “lesbian” refers to women (both cis and trans) who are exclusively attracted to women. “Gay” refers to men, (both cis and trans) who are exclusively attracted to men. Gay is also sometimes used by non-heterosexual women to describe themselves, but this use is less common. Homosexual is a bit of a loaded term because the APA used this term to define same-sex attraction as a mental illness. Some folks don’t have a problem with it and others do. Ask your players what they’re comfortable with, particularly if their character shares their real-life sexuality.
“Bisexual” (with bi meaning two) refers to people of any gender who are attracted to both men and women, but not every bisexual person experiences attraction as a 50-50 split; some bisexual folks prefer women 90% of the time and men 10% and anywhere in between. “Pansexual” (with pan meaning all) refers to people who form romantic attraction regardless of gender; and developed as kind of a political response to criticisms of “bisexual” assuming that there are only two genders/being transphobic. Some bi folks just say that for them, bi means “two or more” genders. “Queer” is a loaded term for older folks in particular because it was the slur of choice during the early days of the LGBTQ rights movement. Younger folks are using this former slur as an umbrella term to encompass anyone who is not exclusively heterosexual/straight, people who don’t like labels, and people who are still figuring things out but know that they’re definitely not straight.
5). Ice-Cream Analogy:
“Asexual,” like transgender, it’s an umbrella term (also abbreviated as ace). If you think of sexual orientation as sexual preference, think of asexuality as sexual appetite. Or, in ice-cream analogy terms; I have preferences for mint chocolate chip and cookie dough ice cream, but will actively pursue eating ice cream in general because I have a stupid strong sweet tooth. Other people may not have an appetite to pursue eating ice cream, but if it’s offered to them, they’ll eat it. Some people will eat ice cream under certain conditions (must have rainbow jimmies or all bets are off), and some just don’t like ice cream at all. Some asexual folks do not experience romantic or sexual attraction to anyone, regardless of gender. Other asexual folks may experience romantic attraction to other people, but not sexual attraction. Some asexual folks might only experience sexual attraction once they’re in a committed relationship. Most of these identities are called gray or demi-asexuality (demi meaning partial). There’s heated debate on whether or not to include asexual as part of the LGBTQ acronym but that’s a can of worms I’m not going to open.
So there you have it! Your crash course is complete and now you can go off into the world armed with your SHINY NEW KNOWLEDGE!
FancyDuckie is a 20-something researcher by daylight, and mahou shoujo cosplayer by moonlight! She’s also known to play murder hobo elven clerics with a penchant for shanking twice a week. Also known as “science girlfriend” of The Heavy Metal GM. When she’s not chained to her sewing machine or doing other nerdy stuff, she enjoys watching ballet, musical theatre, pro hockey, and playing with any critter that will tolerate her presence. You can find her on Twitter, Tumblr, ACParadise, Facebook, Instagram, & Wordpress.
Almeida, J., Johnson, R.M., Corless, H.L., Molnar, B.E. & Azrael, D. (2008). Emotional
distress among LGBT youth: The influence of perceived discrimination based on sexual orientation. Journal of Youth Adolescence, 38, 1001-1014.
American Psychological Association (2012). Guidelines for psychological practice with
lesbian, gay, and bisexual clients. American Psychologist, 67(1), 10-42. doi:
American Psychological Association (2015). Guidelines for psychological practice with
transgender and gender non-conforming people. American Psychologist, 70(9),
832-864. doi: 4 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0039906
Bostwick, W. B., Boyd, C. J., Hughes, T. L., & West, B. (2014). Discrimination and
mental health among lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults in the United States. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 84(1), 35-45.
Brown, L. S. (2008). Cultural competence in trauma therapy: Beyond the flashback.
American Psychological Association: Washington, D. C.
Haas, A. P., Eliason, M., Mays, V. M., Mathy, R. M., Cochran, S. D., D'Augelli, A. R.,
& ... Clayton, P. J. (2011). Suicide and suicide risk in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender populations: Review and recommendations. Journal Of Homosexuality, 58(1), 10-51. doi:10.1080/00918369.2011.534038
Mustanski, B. S., Garofalo, R., & Emerson, E. M. (2010). Mental health disorders,
psychological distress, and suicidality in a diverse sample of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youths. American Journal Of Public Health, 100(12), 2426-2432. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2009.178319
I am a Grognard.
There, I said it. Grognard, a colloquialism originally applied to Napoleon’s veteran soldiers, from the French grogner, to grunt or grumble (thanks, Webster!). It’s a word that drips with connotation, conjuring images of grizzled old campaigners, trading war stories around a campfire, convinced that the newer conscripts will never know what the real war was like.
Modern gaming vernacular has loosened the meaning to include most RPG old timers, the AD&D crowd, the kids who were raised on THAC0 and negative armor classes, who rolled stats as 3d6 in order six times and didn’t cheat. But let’s not forget the origin of the word grognard. We, as old timers, should grumble. And complain. And bitch and moan. We are the tough, nasty gristle that connects gaming’s funky, stigma-ridden past to its current state of popularity and social acceptance. Without us, the bizarre magic of rolling dice around a table might morph into something slick, something bland and commercialized, just another lifestyle commodity to be packaged and advertised and Pinterested.
(Pinterested? Is that even a thing? I just made that up. But that’s part of being a grognard, getting angry over things you don’t understand, so get off my lawn and listen up.)
All sarcasm aside, us old timers do bear a responsibility to the newer generation of fledgling gamers. We might grumble and bitch, but we’ve learned, over many years and many editions of our favorite games, what works at the table, and what most definitely doesn’t. We know that’s it’s bad to split the party, and we know why, we can tell stories of good plans that ended in TPK’s. Most important, we know so many things that can kill the fun. If new players don’t have fun playing the game, this recent upsurge in gaming’s popularity will fizzle faster than you can say “Pet Rock” (in true grognard fashion, a reference that only the old timers will get).
So I’m making a challenge for all of you old campaigners and veterans. Here are three pointers to get you started. Find a group of new gamers. GM for them, because God knows the hardest part of getting started is finding a GM. Get them started, get them hooked, and then get the hell out of their way.
1. Come Out of the Closet
It’s sounds silly, but this has been really hard for me, personally. Many of us old timers started playing in an era where gaming was perceived as Satanic, anti-social and, at best, just plain weird. Normal people didn’t do it. We, as gamers, knew better. We knew the joys and benefits of rolling dice and calculating THAC0; but few of us had the cojones to buck society openly. I use the term ‘closet’ intentionally, with due gravitas, and without snark or sarcasm. For many of us, keeping it out of public life became as much a part of the hobby as actually playing.
Not now. Now it’s Facebook, it’s podcasts, it’s two full episodes of Community, it’s Stranger Things. Rather than being socially shunned, Dungeon Masters are being sought out to run games and teach new players. This is what we’ve been waiting for! But you can’t help other people get into the hobby if you’re still hiding your Player’s Handbook behind a grocery-bag book cover. So, here’s the hard part: I’m beseeching my fellow old timers to shed old habits and quit hiding your hobby. Sit your ass in that Starbucks and openly stat out a kobold ambush. You might be surprised at the people you meet every day who are interested in learning how to play, but have no idea how to get started. Help them get that start, and train ‘em up right.
2. Two Words: “Why Not?”
Game mechanics obviously require some teaching, but I’m amazed when I GM new players, and they continually ask what they can do. “Can I sneak around the guard? Can I steal that horse? Can I play a female elf wizard, even though I’m a 40 year old guy?”
Generally, the best answer to these questions is “Why not?” It takes a while for some people to separate tabletop gaming from movies or videogames, where the action is constrained. You have to demonstrate, again and again until it sticks, that there are no invisible walls and no ‘correct’ choices in tabletop gaming. It’s your job as a grognard to show them how to make that female elf wizard a badass troll slayer that they love to play.
There are perils in this, however. Eventually, a new player will want to be patently evil. Or purposely work against the party. Or split the party. Or do one of a thousand things that you, in your great and vast experience as a grognard, know have great potential to disrupt a game. That’s where you have to exercise your judgment, and your tact, and your many years of gaming.
You shouldn’t tell them, “No, because that’s stupid”. Yes, maybe they are being munchkins, and, yes, munchkins can ruin a game. But weren’t we all munchkins once? You might know when things are a bad idea; but you only know because, long ago, you yourself maybe did those stupid things yourself. That’s when you can tell the long and boring story about your buddy Frank, who decided he wanted to be a chaotic evil thief because his girlfriend Julie was playing a paladin, and how it pissed everybody off and made the game no fun. If you make the story long and boring enough, the player will change their munchkin mind just to make you shut up.
3. Re-gifting the Gift
What were the glory moments of your early gaming days? What adventure or situation really clinched it for you and made you a lifelong gamer? Figure that out, because that’s what you need to help new players find. Mine was the epic moment in 1982 when my intrepid party of junior high nerds fought through the Drow and first beheld the Underdark metropolis of Menzoberranzan. Hearing the DM read the italicized description aloud put the picture indelibly in my imagination. Even now, thirty-odd years later, I can picture it.
That’s your challenge. Did the original Tomb of Horrors mark you for life? Then spend three hours updating it to a newer edition, and introduce your players to the joys of Acererak’s death-trap (just, please, for pity’s sake, at least allow them a saving throw when they inevitably stick their hand in the devil’s mouth). As an Ancient Mariner of Gaming, you’ve had the unique privilege of experiencing the glory days of the hobby. Maybe you were there for the early Forgotten Realms, for the days when Ravenloft was a one-off oddity that became a phenomenon. You know that the Bigby spells, the Mordenkainen spells, the Otiluke and Drawmij spells are all drawn from real players’ characters back in the days when GenCon was still in Lake Geneva. Pass all that on, update it and bore the kids with it. That’s your job as Resident Grognard.
Go forth, cranky old gamer, and bring the light of Gygax to the many who toil in a sad darkness without dice. And one day, if you’re lucky, one of the new players you’ve brought into the hobby will become a GM themselves, and will become a cranky know-it-all, and she will tell one of her players, “Of course, dumbass: Drawmij is just Jim Ward spelled backward. Duh.
Jack Benner is the head bottle-washer and sole roustabout at Stick in the Mud Press http://stickinthemudgames.blogspot.com/
I’ve played Dungeons and Dragons for 28 years and I’ve been a DM for 20 of those. I’m currently running a 5e campaign that I built specifically for my group. As a Dungeon Master, I love to add in little bits of flair to spice up the time between encounters and adventures, add interesting challenges to fights, and to create interesting adventure hooks. Crafting an adventure is a bit like cooking a meal, you need a balance of ingredients and flavours. I like to weave non-combat encounters and social interactions into the adventure, sometimes they are unrelated to the adventure goals (seemingly random) and sometimes they lead the party down unexpected paths, but they always serve a purpose: creating an engaging and story-worthy adventure.
Full disclosure, I spend entirely too much time combing through rules books looking for more ways to engage my players and more ways to surprise them. I take way too much pleasure from re-discovering some underused portion of a rulebook or some connection between a monster and the story arc that I can weave into an encounter. Below I’ve listed some of the less popular rules found in the DMG, at least in my opinion, that can be used to create sustained story arcs or simple but memorable encounters.
Here are a few of my favourite “underused” rules from the DMG.
1. Extreme Weather (p. 110)
In my experience, weather is used almost exclusively as a mood setting tool in most adventures; think, “Dark rolling clouds hang low over the tiny village, a light rain soaks through your cloak as your party approaches the manor gate”; this kind of imagery is awesome, and I strongly encourage it. There is something universal about weather and how it affects our psyche. We all understand how an overcast day can put us on edge or how a bright blue sky with fluffy clouds makes us smile. That being said, extreme weather events can add some spice that can be leveraged into the adventure to add challenge as well. Extreme cold and heat both add levels of exhaustion that can, ultimately, lead to death (the beauty of the exhaustion rules in the PHB are that the more you get, the harder it is to reverse). The normal party of adventurers stocked up on food and water for their long desert/arctic voyage now has to make some tough decisions or become very clever when one of their party members speed is halved.
Strong Wind is also a great tool to keep in the back pocket of your special DM pants. I’m not the only one who has special DM pants right? It’s great for those moments when you need to limit ranged attacks; vision; or, less often; aerial movement. A windstorm will give you a rule structure that the players can’t argue with and plenty of realistic moodiness. I’ve experienced more than a few encounters where the villain should have escaped, if not for a lucky crit that threw a wrench in my plans. So, I learned to prepare for these inevitabilities by incorporating mundane and natural events into the encounter. By using weather as an integral part of the encounter you avoid player discontent of misplaced suspicion; I’ve learned that they tend to get sceptical if just as the Ranger pulls his string back a random wind knocks him on his ass, and they feel more than a little railroaded.
Pro tip: heavy precipitation causes disadvantage on perception checks that rely on vision or hearing. Mix that in with some strong wind and a couple days of extreme cold exhaustion and you have a recipe for some encounter jambalaya; that band of goblins isn’t so easy anymore!
2. Carousing pg. 128
One of my favourite things about carousing is that it is an excellent tool for introducing side quests. Basically it works like this, your hedonistic PC goes on a binge while taking a break between adventures or just as a reward for a long hard trek. Who doesn’t deserve a couple days of binge drinking and gambling after walking for 2 months through the forest!? They spend money like it’s going out of style (4 GP/Day minimum, which I think is low) and at the end of it they roll a percentile die to see exactly what kind of trouble they got into. There are five standard results and if you use the rules exactly as presented there is a 50% chance that the results of the festivities are an easy to use hook for a side quest or the introduction of a recurrent NPC.
Pro tip: Use carousing to push the characters forward in a campaign without making them feel forced. Let them get crazy for a couple days and roll the dice, throw your own results onto the table and spoon feed them something important (e.g., you wake up naked in a strange room covered in mystical writing).
3. Other Rewards pg. 227
I’m not a big fan of giving piles of gold as rewards and I’m always looking for other ways to entice the PCs onto the road, beside the promise of maiming innocent goblins. Supernatural gifts and Marks of Prestige are great tools that can make the campaign more interesting and give the PCs something useful that they might not have thought of negotiating for. I don’t usually play epic level campaigns so I tend to shy away from Blessings, but I do use Charms, and what are Blessings if not Charms on steroids. Contrary to video game logic, the local witch doctor or seer likely doesn’t have a pile of gold sitting around that they can give to the adventurer who brings them the missing ingredient, but they could reasonably have access to a charm that they made or were given (p.s., the beauty of charms is their limited use – making them great rewards for low level characters).
I’ve done entire adventures around securing a letter of recommendation as part of a larger campaign; and parcels of land for the druid or ranger, deeds to property in the city, or an impressive title add something to the game that gold and magical items can’t, pride. Sure players are proud of their Thief after amassing a certain amount of wealth and items, but that pride is usually centred on the victories they won to get there, whereas “Lord Backstabbath” adds a whole new dimension to their character.
Pro tip: Parcels of land and Special Favours are side adventures waiting to happen. Maybe that plot of land isn’t as uninhabited as the King thought or maybe the person that owes them the favour isn’t too concerned with collateral damage.
4. Charisma Check p. 245
Ok, so the Charisma Check is less about adding spice than it is about streamlining play. It seems I always have one player who isn’t very good at role-playing social interactions or maybe I don’t really know how the NPC baker would respond to the characters. The Charisma check rules are quick and easy and basing some of the player’s social interactions on die rolls can mimic the seeming randomness of actual social interactions. I’ve found that it can also have surprising results, which you can capitalize on as a DM to turn an otherwise dull interaction into a memorable encounter that the players will talk about for a long time. Remember that time the Bard convinced the bartender to slip poison into the warlocks drink? Oh yeah, his bar burned to the ground and he lost everything, bad Bard!
5. Diseases p. 256
Few things scare us more than unknown sickness. Diseases can be used as adventure hooks or to add a sense of impending doom. One of my favourites is Sight Rot, you want the party to finish the mission right now, infect some or all of them with Sight Rot and let them know the villain has the cure. Of course, entire adventures can be built around Cackle Fever, a disease that manifests only in times of stress (fighting, or stealthing behind the baddie for the sneak attack) and causes the victim to break out in mad laughter, infecting everyone around them. But why stop there, in a world of magic anything is possible, why not a disease that slowly turns the victim incorporeal, or slowly reduces their stats leaving them helpless and drooling. Adding disease into your adventure can be as big or as small as you like, a plague ship sitting in the bay or a kingdom-wide epidemic; either way the players are introduced to something that they can’t kill with a sword and something that is inherently scary and stressful – this is especially impactful in low/no magic settings.
Every DM should have a variety of non-violent encounters in their tackle box to provide a break from the bloodbath, or to use if the adventure is getting predictable. These were just a few of my go-to tools but the rule books are chock full of them. If you're new to the DM chair, my advice is to spend extra time reading the books, because, to be honest, I had completely forgotten about Carousing … in the game that is. I try to get a little IRL carousing in every month between running games and working. I hope this article gets your creative juices flowing and helps add something memorable to your game sessions.
Bryan is not a rules lawyer, but he is a lover of table-top role-playing games and board games. Bryan is also a professional coach and lives in Alberta Canada where he enjoys the mountains and wide open spaces. He is known to quote Archer and binge watch anything to do with superheroes.
Hello, once again, Dear Traveler,
Forgive the length of time since my last correspondence. I do believe you'll agree that my latest project has some interesting possibilities, however. At the Lady Gwen's suggestion, I've been investigating sentient magical items.
Sometimes called ego weapons or soul blades, these sort of items usually (although not always) appear as melee weapons. The most famous example within the Mists is the cursed blade Ebonbane, but this is far from the only example. Most of these weapons are valuable confidantes and advisors for their wielder, serving in much the same capacity that a familiar does for a witch or sorcerer.
The most powerful of these items communicate telepathically, and the majority speak aloud. Some instead communicate only through transmitted feelings. A few, however, do not possess the capacity for speech or mental communication. They instead communicate through other more esoteric means. Frequently, the self-aware nature of these items can be overlooked by the weapon's owner. Enclosed are a few of my files on items which communicate in this manner, which my father in law refers to as semi-empathy.
Weapon (rapier), legendary (requires attunement by a Chaotic member of a non-Underdark race)
Cruagh was originally made to combat deep elves, the jet black fey that dwell deep in the dark places of the world. It came to the Demiplane of Dread with an adventurer who carried it for many years, until his untimely demise at the hands of the Black Rose. It was last seen in the hands of a mercenary in Valachan.
Cruagh appears as a silvery basket hilted rapier. The ornate handguard is formed from hundreds of wound silver wires. Cruagh can wind and unwind these wires to form detailed pictures on its hilt, this is the way it communicates. It cannot form words, although it can understand any language its wielder speaks.
Cruagh is loyal and doesn't seek to put its wielder in danger, although if consulted it tends to counsel bold action over stealth or retreat. It has yet to encounter any drow since coming through the Mists, but it would demand their destruction if they were encountered.
Cruagh is a +1 weapon, and if the command word (the elven word for 'fire') is spoken, it adds +1d8 fire damage to its attacks for 10 rounds. CN, Int 10, Wis 8, Cha 14, Ego 14.
2 The Madonna Blade
Weapon (greatsword), legendary (requires attunement by a Lawful worshipper of a LG deity)
According to some rumors, Isolde, the proprietor of the traveling Carnival, is actually a celestial being, willingly banished to the Mists to hunt an ancient foe. After Joram Mournesworth, a longtime friend of mine, discovered this weapon in a treasure cache, he began receiving visions of what he called a 'moonlight clad' woman who told him that the angelic powers refused to allow Isolde's sacrifice to go unanswered by their own order. Accordingly, one of their own allowed herself to be crafted into a relic to protect the righteous in the Demiplane of Dread.
The Madonna Blade, or Hallamariel, is a notched greatsword with the inscription "I am a light to those who dwell in darkness" up the blade. It sheds a pure white light when this is read aloud. Although the angel who lives inside the blade can only communicate with the user in dreams, and even then only cryptically, she provides valuable wisdom to the pure of heart, always counseling temperance, zeal, and determination. She would be a prized companion for a paladin.
Hallamariel is a +3 greatsword. She allows the wielder to see normally, even when blinded or within magical darkness. LG, Int 17, Wis 18, Cha 17, Ego 15
3 Roselynne's Cameo
Amulet, legendary (requires attunement by a spellcaster who prepares spells)
It's rare in the extreme to find an ego item which isn't a weapon or piece of armor. Frustratingly, the origins of this unique necklace are as mysterious as the amulet itself. It first surfaced in Sithicus in 721, found in a dead woman's effects, and has since become a prized tool for spellcasters capable of heeding its gruesome advice.
The item appears as a delicate locket on a tarnished chain. Only an attuned user may open the locket. Inside, the left half contains a cameo of a half-elven woman, her identity a mystery. The right half is a tiny, thumbnail sized oil portrait of the bearer of the locket. If the locket is opened while the caster is preparing their spells, the portrait will instead show them deceased, usually in a horrific and gruesome manner. Curiously, most users find that the method of their demise bears some relevance to the events which unfold around them. The necklace doesn't communicate in any other fashion, and appears to have no motivating goals.
After preparing spells for the day, the bearer of Roselynne's Cameo may view their grisly death within the locket. If they do, the DM may make a suggested change to their spell list, which they may choose to accept or not. N, Int 20, Wis 15, Cha 10, Ego 10
Weapon (shortspear), legendary (requires attunement by a druid, ranger, cleric with the nature domain, or any sylvan creature)
About a century and a half ago, a group of elves banded together for mutual protection. Some native and some Outlanders, these elves formed a druidic circle and attempted to settle in Barovia. Although their connection to the land allowed them to create many potent magical items, they were eventually driven out by Strahd's forces. The spear Ivicane was one of their creations, although it became separated from them in Kartakass, and they do not seem particularly concerned with its retrieval.
Ivicane is an ornate spear, carved with delicate designs of lush plants and frolicking animals. Befitting the nature of its creators, there is no metal anywhere in its construction. Wielders of the wooden spear often report a close rapport with the weapon, claiming it's balance allows them to achieve truly awe inspiring feats of martial dexterity. Ivicane is capable of dominating any nearby animal, although it cannot speak through the animal or make it do anything abnormal. The spear can force the dominated creature to fight, but will not do so unless its wielder's life is in dire peril. Under no circumstances will Ivicane allow herself to be used to slaughter natural animals if there is another option: even if the user beats her Ego save, she is capable of simply suppressing all of her magical functions until the user discards her.
Ivicane functions like a Defender, save that its bonus is +4. NG, Int 10, Wis 17, Cha 18, Ego 16
Weapon (heavy crossbow), legendary (requires attunement)
First created by a dwarven clan in Vorostokov, this beautiful weapon has recently been sighted in the hands of a hired killer in the slums of Neufurchtenburg. It appears as a well used and well maintained crossbow, which draws back by means of an underslung lever. It is reinforced so that the butt may be used as a club with no penalty.
Grentang's purpose is to amass as much wealth as possible. Although it always partners loyally with its wielder, it has no such feelings to its wielder's companions. The weapon can communicate by altering its user's senses. When in danger, it can create a sharp, smokey smell. If the user is in danger of being surprised, it can create a loud whistle in its user's mind. It can indicate its pleasure or displeasure with a sweet or sour taste in its wielder's mouth, and can use this to answer yes/no questions. It will happily advise its user on how to accrue more personal wealth.
Grentang operates as a +2 weapon, and adds +2d6 toxic damage to its ranged attacks. If its user heeds its advice, they have advantage on rolls to detect ambushes or hidden targets, find secret doors, or to appraise and negotiate the value of items. N, Int 16, Wis 15, Cha 9, Ego 11
6 Wisdom of Otei
Armor (shield), legendary (requires attunement to any non-evil user capable of laughter)
Otei was a traveling priest, known for his good nature and uplifting humor. Before his death, he crafted this bronze shield to pass his wisdom to future generations. As far as I can tell, this shield only serves bearers of good humor. Those who are constant sticks-in-the-mud soon find themselves compelled to pass the shield on to someone more suitable.
The thick shield bears the image of the rotund Otei, frozen in eternal laughter. On the back of the shield is a small sliding door over a tiny compartment. Each morning, the bearer will find a small message on a rice paper scroll within the compartment, inscribed with a vague, often humorous proverb, usually containing valuable insight for the wielder's struggles.
+3 shield. Reading the scroll grants the user the Portents ability of a wizard specialized in Divination, or gives them an extra die if they already possess this ability. The user is also immune to the spell Hideous Laughter. NG, Int 10, Wis 18, Cha 15, Ego 14
Weapon (longsword), legendary (requires attunement by character with the Perform proficiency)
Orchestratto was plucked from the hands of a group of adventurers who attempted to assassinate Strahd von Zarovich. Although the warlord was initially intrigued by the weapon, he found it far too annoying for his taste and discarded it to his vast treasury. How it got out of the castle is unclear, but it has been spotted from Kartakass to Avonleigh.
Any user who wields Orchestratto hears a constant, never ending musical score appropriate to their situation (or request, if the sword feels like it) in their head at all times. This functions as long as they are attuned to the sword, even if they are not holding it. Orchestratto can replicate any music it has heard, no matter the number of types of instruments. It can even mimic general vocalizations, although not words. Despite its alignment, Orchestratto allows any user to wield it.
Orchestratto is a +2 longsword. Its user receives +1 to all attack, damage, proficiency, and save rolls, but suffers disadvantage on all Awareness or Perception rolls based on sound, and must make a Concentration check to cast any spell with a verbal component. NE Int 12, Wis 14, Cha 18, Ego 16
Ultimately, the decision to utilize a weapon such as these is up to you. Although the counsel and self-determination of such weapons can often provide a boon to an adventurer who carries one, you would do well to remember that such items are strong personalities in their own right. They have their own goals, desires, and jealousies, and more than one adventurer has been undone by an ego weapon withdrawing its favor at an inopportune moment.
As always, wishing you safe travels and happy hunting,
Frankie "Farshot" Drakeson, Lord Mayor of Carinford-Halldon
Jim Stearns is a deranged hermit from the swamps of Southern Illinois. In addition to writing for the Black Library, he puts pen to paper for High Level Games and Keep on the Heathlands. His mad scribblings can frequently be found in Quoth the Raven, as well as anthologies like Fitting In or Selfies from the End of the World, by Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearnswriter.
Note: a version of this article first appeared in Quoth the Raven #20.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.