Depending on how you play the game, creating a backstory for your character is either the easiest or the hardest part of character creation. Or at least that’s what I’ve noticed in the tabletop community for the last few years. Especially with the relatively recent influx of player thanks to the many mainstream representations of it such as Critical Role. In both seasons of that game, all of the players have had rather complex backstories that intermingle with both the world and the other players. Which can be intimidating. However, it isn’t terribly difficult if you have an outline. The first tip to give to any player, new or old, is to talk to your DM about backstory. They are the ones that will be able to help the most with integration into the world, because they are the ones who control the world. With that out of the way, I give you some story arcs.
1) The Redemption Arc
I mean, with Red Dead Redemption still being so hot, of course I would mention the redemption arc so I could name drop something that’s popular and increase the likelihood that someone stumbles onto this article while looking for something different. This is a very popular arc in both D&D and other forms of media because of how easy it is to build off of. If you used to be a criminal, then you likely have some contacts in the underbelly of society. If you betrayed them, then you likely have made a powerful enemy out of a thieves guild. You fled the country to avoid persecution? No contacts in the new one. You met a kind priest along the way who brought you to a church and began to make you pietus and bam you have your cleric with more than their fair share of skeletons in the closet.
While this is very easy to write and work with, it can also be very interesting to play. The thought of working hard to fend off your more malevolent habits such as torture or violence can make for a very interesting dynamic, especially with good aligned characters, however make sure you don’t slip into murder hobo mode. Because no one wants to see the cleric stabbing a shop keep for a discount. I mean... I kinda want to see that. It’d be funny: “The power of Ao compels you… to give me a thirty percent discount.” Then the shopkeep is like, “I’m an atheist” and the cleric just starts chanting “by the power of Ao…” But all that aside, at its core the redemption arc allows for a lot of contrast within a character's personality, the residual gruffness from being a killer for hire contrasted by your new Paladin-esque oath, for example.
2) The Runaway Arc
At first you think “oh geez, is this guy just going to tell me to do what X-Men does with all its characters to trick the audience into caring about them?” And the answer to that question is yes… kind of. While the idea of a character running away from home because some sort of uncomfortable physical trait or power making people scared of them is novel in theory, in practice it only really works for certain groups of characters, in a tabletop setting. But here is the runaway explained better: for whatever reason, your original home is no longer an option to stay at and you flee to avoid death or further abuse. That’s it. The creativity comes from the reason. One of my players made a character who, as part of her backstory, was married away to an abusive noble to forge a peace treaty between her race and the humans that were beginning to settle in the area. Later, the noble violated the treaty and started a genocide of the race, while keeping the player character captive and treating her as something closer to a pet or trophy. She was abused both mentally and physically and she ended up running away from the place that she had lived her whole life. Not only did that set up a greater villain in her plot, but it also left her with a reason to adventure and travel. It even left the door open for random encounters during travel, as agents of the noble could track her down. In short, this backstory can wrap everything up in a nice little bow and even open a few doors for DMs.
The Runaway arc has a few endings which can really go in a number of directions. One is they return home after whatever force that opposes them is dealt with. Another would be that said force is destroyed, but so is their home in the process, forcing them back into the role of wanderer or having them decide to make a new home for themself and the people they used to live with. There is always the option that the force that opposes them never is defeated, and they simply change everything about themself and move on. All of this can be an appropriately dramatic way to flex your roleplaying muscles. Of course, if you’re just developing the character by the seat of your pants, then do whatever feels right in the moment. That is how most people play after all.
3) The Lost Soul Arc
We all know “that guy” who went backpacking through Europe and he like “totally found himself” and thought it was a “really spiritual experience” and that you should “totally do it sometime if you have the time to really connect with yourself.” While people like that, who will remain nameless (Keith), are typically obnoxious and won’t shut up about it, the need to find oneself is actually very common in the world. An old soldier who has seen too much death and wants to see what else the world has the offer other than blood, screams, and loss. A confused young wizard who has no idea what he’s going to do with all his academic knowledge, but knows he wants to see more. Even a lanky blonde douchebag whose dad paid for his two years off in Europe and wanted an excuse to eat foreign food and meet people whose grasp of english was poor enough to think he’s clever.
The Lost Soul Arc has a rather obvious conclusion; the finding of their purpose. It doesn’t have to be some great cosmic truth, perhaps the fact of the matter is, that young wizard was never happier than when he was with his wife and kid, so he hangs up the robe and wand to be the family man he’s happy being. Perhaps that grizzled veteran finds out that he has a passion for painting, and that's how he spends the rest of his days after his adventures. Of course at the same time, that young wizard could discover his spark for magic far surprasses almost all others and becomes the arcane protector of the entire kingdom, or as the veteran passes on into the next life a god approaches him and tells him of the fact that he was meant to be an instrument of war from birth, and that his stories will inspire hundred more young men and women to march headlong into danger for their loved ones. (He could take that a few ways depending on weather or not his perception on war has changed, but that's an article for another day.)
4) The Fallen Arc
Lucifer, Anakin Skywalker, Gwyn Lord of Sunlight, and Michael Jackson all have something in common. They were all once much greater than they are considered now. This is definitely the most difficult one to work out with both your DM and yourself. It's a tricky process, turning dark. Bad eggs are rarely always bad, and a fall from grace is much easier to fit into a backstory, which would lead into a redemption arc, however if you want to develop your character in this direction it’ll 100% be something you need to work out with your DM and tell them about from the start. They would need to leave open opportunities for you to start exploring the darker side of your character. You’ll need to decide if your character plans to abandon, betray or simply continue to have conflict with the party. At least in most cases you’ll end up having some sort of conflict with the party as you begin this arc.
Of course the next thing to consider is that the most work often comes with the biggest payout. Your character could become the next BBEG of your DM’s next campaign. Your sudden but inevitable betrayal will certainly coax out the curses of your party, and as such maybe you’ll become the next villain of this campaign. Depending on how well liked your character was before their fall, it could cause major waves within your group, with both the players and the characters.
5) The Joe Schmo Arc
“It ain’t much, but it’s honest work,” isn’t just something said by loveable farmers. You can say it too, in sharp ironic contrast with the imagery of you suplexing an orc into the dirt and snapping his neck instantaneously. This arc is seen time and time again. Good examples include Frodo and Bilbo from Lord of the Rings, Harry from Harry Potter, and Kayley from the Quest for Camelot. A very good start for level one characters is just having them be a normal person who was swept away by circumstance. Perhaps you were just in the right place at the right time and everyone put you on a pedestal. For example, perhaps a giant monster was terrorizing your village and happened to fall off a cliff to his death, and you looked as if you were the one that rushed in and pushed him, when you were actually cowering. From there on you were heralded as a hero and slayer of monsters, despite only being a farmer for most of your life. The circumstances are wide open, and that is, once again, the best part. The development of these characters is always very unique, as a simple farm boy turns into an arch mage of near godly power, but still stops by home every other weekend to have dinner with mom and help milk the cows. The change of view is what changes the character and the literal gain of experience. Often times this is the best way to get a character that is shaped, almost entirely by the events that happen in game. Whether or not you consider that a good or bad thing, is up to you.
Really, this is the arc with the most built in comedy. It’s a big world out there, and having a view of the world where the best a person can get is a simple life with a family of 18 before dying at the ripe old age of 35 is typically very different from the reality of magic rich game universes. It’s very easy to forget the little guy when you’re out stopping wars, delving dungeons and slaying dragons. Being one of the little guys is very grounding for many parties out there (and in some cases can stop murderhobo-ing).
All of these are very general suggestions for characters and how they COULD develop. However, the simple fact of the matter is, more often than not you’re just better off building your character in response to the things that occur in game. You don’t have to have every little thing planned out from the beginning. The most important part of the game is the fun, and as long as everyone is having it, you’re playing it right.
Jarod Lalonde is a young roleplayer 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 Cthulhu whispering to him in the small hours of the night, or just persistent flashbacks to the Far Realm.
Picture Reference: https://www.buzzfeed.com/ishabassi/zuko-avatar-the-last-airbender-best-character
When coming up with a setting it’s easy to hit a block. Have you used up your creative juices on the last huge campaign you ran? Gotten halfway through and just got stuck? When writing up a campaign I like to use real world events to help my players connect to the game. “Write what you know,” as they say. So I have compiled a small list of six events in history that can be used to throw a bit of life into your creativity.
1) World Wars
The world wars were horrific, bloody and long lasting. If you have a huge campaign setting throw in one of your own wars, either one already started or one about to begin. Achtung Cthulhu! uses the backdrop of World War II to set its tone and offers an alternative timeline for supernatural and magical events throughout the war. Using this setting can be great for increasing tension or throwing your PCs into a huge battle to make them feel insignificant right before having to take on a great horror from the depth of space.
2) The Crusades
The crusades are similar in scale of the wars mentioned above but were very single sided in cause. A vast army of believers marched to cleanse the non believers from the lands. This concept could be used in many of your campaigns in various scales, whether a single cult or an army poised to attack a neighbouring land. This setting could be used very similarly to the world war setting with a more religious or belief driven story hook. Adding a magic system to this setting could be interesting, using it as the driving force of aggressor attempting to cleanse the land of magic or perhaps wishing to destroy ‘tainted’ magic similar to some wizards in the Harry Potter novels.
Long ago the greatest kingdoms sought to expand their empires by taking lesser kingdoms and utilising their resources. Colonisation was not met with warm welcomes; each smaller kingdom fought and most failed to deter the claims to their lands. The few perks of this were overshadowed by the treatment of the indigenous population and the attitude of the oppressors. Using this as a setting could set up guerrilla factions trying to stop their homes being taken by force, or even have the players on the side of the aggressor, enticing the players with land for conquering a region or simply wealth from the exploitation of the resources from with the area seized. Either way you could persuade the players with an item of great significance or usefulness to the party and let them decide how best to acquire it.
4) Cold War
The cold war was a tense time between nations and sparked a large espionage campaign by multiple countries. Tested alliances and covert treachery was rife throughout this period and makes a perfect setting for covert missions into enemy territory and delivering misinformation to sway events in your favour. This is the best conflict to read up on if you are interested in spy versus spy settings and can be readily applied to many cyberpunk style games.
5) Navajo Conflicts
The Navajo Conflicts were a series of battles ranging from skirmishes to raids between the Navajo people and various enemies including the Spanish and the American military. Using this as a setting could inspire very low tech guerrilla style combat where the party must infiltrate an enemy base steal supplies and escape unnoticed before beginning a full scale assault on the enemy positions.
These have been rife throughout history, anywhere there is power to be exploited there will be those who wish to do so. From Hitler to Castro there will always be people who feel superior to others. There will always be people who think that their ideals are more important than the public, those who believe that they are the only salvation for their country and will defend their power with everything they have. The perfect time for a band of misfits to come blow stuff up. Enter your PCs and a storyline that takes them on an opposing view from the dictator and let the chaos ensue.
History can teach us many lessons in real life and in our roleplaying games. If you do use a setting from history read up on it and find out the motivations behind the conflicts and how it affected the people around it. Try to find a way to allow your PCs to feel like they are part of a true struggle in their game world so they want to help the cause and no just farm the loot. There are many many more settings you can look into throughout history and chances are if you have read it in a supplement it probably has real world ties that you can look into and adjust for your own use.
Ross Reid is an RPG enthusiast who loves all things roleplay, from creating a local group to sponsored gaming marathons, he will dip his toe into anything that catches his eye.
Image source https://www.deviantart.com/zguernsey/art/Men-Of-Honor-111150790
I pay attention to what newbies ask in regards to running games, or what they hope to achieve. The common thread I find is about how to make or plan a more epic campaign. I always advise against making long term plans in games, because players very quickly derail things. For that reason, I always suggest learning how to improvise (a topic we’ve talked about quite a bit at High Level Games).
It’s still never the advice people want, though; they’re hell bent on planning a big elaborate campaign. In their defence, they may not have felt the crushing defeat that comes with a game falling to pieces before it gets to the good stuff you’ve planned. Or if they have, they remain optimistic about their long running campaign. (Good on you if you have that optimism.)
With that in mind, I have another unconventional piece of advice: plagiarize. I realize that’s a loaded term, and also often confused with copyright, but hear me out. When we’re in art or music class, we learn the basics before we go off developing our own style. To do that, we often copy what our teacher’s do, and what they do is copy masters who came well before them. This was even done by Hunter S. Thompson, an outstanding journalist and writer from the 1960’s and 70’s.
What I’m suggesting is this: if you’re new, borrow the plot lines from somewhere else, and adapt them to your new medium. Video games seem like a good place to start, since they’re a medium built around interactive story with challenge built into them. So with all that said, let’s look at some video game plots you can adapt into your roleplaying games!
1) Collect The Items To Defeat The Evil
As Seen In: The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy 1
There’s a great evil out there, and in order for the hero to defeat it, they must first collect a bunch of random items. In the original Final Fantasy, it was the four elemental crystals the Warriors of Light were looking for. Meanwhile, in Legend of Zelda, there’s usually some series of trials or items Link needs to collect before he can get the Master Sword and teach Ganon a lesson about screwing around with Hyrule.
Almost every Legend of Zelda game is just one giant series of fetch quests, yet the formula never gets old. This is because there’s always a feeling of progression as the player is exploring and completing dungeons. To replicate this same sort of feeling around a game table, be generous with the magical items if you aren’t normally. If they’re looking for elemental crystals like in Final Fantasy, go ahead and include things like a short sword +1 that’s made of never-melting ice in the dungeon with the ice elemental crystal.
2) Defeat The Minions To Reach The Evil
As Seen In: Megaman, the last world in Final Fantasy 5
Much like our first point, there’s a great evil out there, but to reach it, the players first have to defeat all of their equally evil minions first! In Megaman, this was the 8 Robot Masters you combat before tackling Dr. Wily’s Castle, or in the very end of Final Fantasy 5 when you’re wandering through the void looking for the Exdeath, you encounter all manner of other evil beings loyal to him that were hitherto unmentioned. This can be used in conjunction with the first point, as it was in Final Fantasy 5, or on it’s own like in Megaman. In either case, progression remains important.
For an interesting twist, you can make the minions optional, as a few entries in the Megaman X series have done. However, to execute this well, you mustn’t scale down the big evil, the minions should serve to prepare the heroes in some way. If you insist on taking on the final boss fair, though, you can always make a tactical retreat an option. (As Final Fantasy 5 does when the heroes enter the void; they can freely leave at any time.)
3) Chasing After The Evil To Defeat Them
As Seen In: Super Mario Brothers, the first disc of Final Fantasy 7
Evil isn’t always stationary. They’re either always on the move, like Sephiroth in the beginning of Final Fantasy 7, or they’ve got multiple fortresses throughout the land and are constantly running from one to the next when the heroes catch up, such as in many of the later Super Mario games.
This one is ideal for GMs who like to make maps and track how worlds change based on PC and NPC actions, and also provides some interesting twists! If the evil has a lot of fortresses and gained too much ground in the chase, the heroes could decide to instead draw the evil to them by razing the fortresses. Additionally, locals who were liberated by the heroes during the chase could help slow down evil should they wind up needing to backtrack during their flight.
4) Rebuilding After The Evil Has Done Their Worst
As Seen In: Dark Cloud, recurring theme in Final Fantasy 14’s Realm Reborn arc
Sometimes, evil wins and everything is destroyed, as is the case of the PS2 game Dark Cloud. The journey is all about reversing the damage as you strive to find a way to prevent another such catastrophe. In the Final Fantasy 14 Realm Reborn arc, evil was stopped, but at a great cost, and the story continues with a new generation of heroes picking up the pieces.
If a big cataclysmic battle happens, that may lead to collateral damage. If mighty spells are flung by both sides, what sort of impact would that have on the cosmology? How might it have scarred the landscape? The villages razed by an evil overlord don’t necessarily come back just because the one who razed them was defeated. If the cause of the evil is gone, there’s still the task of figuring out what damage was done, and how to fix it.
You’ve no doubt noticed a theme with all these, or at least that they’re all very similar or even overlap in some cases. That’s because there’s only so many original ideas, so much so that scholars have found how every story can be intertwined into one another, and even given this phenomenon a name: The Hero’s Journey.
Furthermore, just as every story archetype is inevitably intertwined, so is the history of video games and tabletop games; they’re both games that eventually came to be adapted as storytelling media. Players give their input, it gets parsed, the state of the game is updated, and story is progressed. The only difference is that video games use machines that can do the parsing.
However, what works for a video game, won’t necessarily work for tabletop. It’s expected that in a video game that things will be locked off; certain doors will only open if you have a key. In a tabletop game, however, expectations are different. If I have a super human strength and can smash wood and stone columns easily, why can’t I bash down a door made of similar materials?
And THAT, my fledgling GM friends, is why improvisation is also important: so you can keep your epic campaign moving along without a hitch!
Aaron der Schaedel once wrote for a now defunct website called Game Master’s Game Table, and one of his favorite articles for that site was one telling the intertwined history of video games and tabletop ones. This was his attempt at a spiritual successor to that article. Something something, absurd plug for his Twitter: @Zamubei
Picture Reference: https://na.finalfantasyxiv.com/
5th edition Dungeons and Dragons was created to be high magic. Healing is readily available, spellcasters are relatively powerful from their first level, and magic items are often powerful and common. As a reaction to this, a lot of Dungeon Masters try “low magic campaigns” where spellcasters are rare and not allowed as PCs, magic items are nearly impossible to find, and magic itself is either a distant memory or never existed. If this sounds appealing to you, consider the following questions before deciding if you want a low magic campaign.
1) Do The Players Want It?
Sure, it’s your game, but the players need to have fun too. This is especially true if you’re playing with a group of friends and not some random people who signed up to play your game because it sounded fun. Do your players want a low-magic campaign? Depending on “how low you go” they would be limited to either completely martial classes, or third-casters (ranger, paladin, eldritch knight, arcane trickster), and would have access to very few magical items. Make sure they know what they’re getting into and be clear about what kind of game each person wants to play before imposing a low magic campaign upon them.
2) Does It Fit The Narrative?
Is there a narrative reason why magic would be rare in your world? Maybe the gods are absent or dead. Or perhaps some natural disaster has disconnected the “weave” from the material plane. You could even say that magic has been feared, and as such, it’s been destroyed and bred out of all but the most remote reaches of the world. No matter what you decide, come up with a legitimate reason for limiting or removing magic in your world. If you say, “I just don’t like magic as a Dungeon Master,” you’ll lose a bit of credibility with your players.
3) Will It Handicap Your Players?
Will removing magic severely limit the access your players have to vital healing, damage, and roleplay? While healing is frequently done through other means (like hit dice), a majority of it occurs through healing magic. If you’re looking for a deadly, gritty campaign, removing or weakening healing magic is definitely a good way to accomplish that, but it’s likely you’ll have to redo a few class mechanics as well as augment things like the healer’s kit and medicine checks. A large part of narrative and roleplaying also revolves around magic. If your players want that level of difficulty, that’s great, but make sure you are all aware of this when you discuss a low magic campaign. They will die, and probably quite often.
4) Will You Play By The Rules?
Don’t be one of those DMs who take magic away from the players and then uses magic against them. If you’re doing low or no magic you take away a significant amount of creatures you can throw at your players. No liches, arguably no dragons, no magical beasts, no animated objects, no lycanthropy. If you’re being fair you can’t even have anything with innate magic or psionics (illithids). Even undead like skeletons or zombies are out unless you can figure some non-magical way they are being resurrected. Sure, you can make up a reason you have magical creatures in a non-magical world, including the fallback “I’m the GM,” but none of your players will actually want that. Before you consider a low magic campaign, consider just how many creatures you’re willing to go without.
5) How Will You Make Up For It?
How are you going to make up for the vacuum that magic won’t fill? Will you have technology to make guns or other damage-dealing items? Will you allow for scientific alchemy to provide healing and utility mechanics? The replacement should be both mechanical and narrative, but as a DM you shouldn’t eliminate magic without replacing it with something. If you want to, I’d suggest playing a system other than 5e.
Wanting a low magic setting is understandable and can even be fun if it’s done in the right way. It is most important to talk with your players about it; discuss all the above questions with your players, and if you all agree, you could have an excellent campaign!
Ryan Langr is a DM, player, and content creator of Dungeons & Dragons 5e. His passions include epic plot twists, creating exceptionally scary creatures, and finding ways to bring his player’s characters to the brink of death. He also plays Pathfinder/3.5. In his real life, he is a stay at home dad, husband, and blogger of many other interests.
Picture Reference: https://inthelabyrinth.org/the-fantasy-trip/magic-low-fantasy-settings/
Listen, I love D&D. Medieval fantasy is my main jam and no matter what other games I play, there is a spot in my heart that will always be kept for that game and that genre. But for the good of D&D, I want you to stop playing D&D.
Now, let me explain: I’ve been playing D&D since I was 12, using a battered Red Box with no polyhedral dice and less understanding of the rules. I started DMing right away, and have remained in that position for the majority of the time that I have been in this hobby. I played out of the Basic Rules Cyclopedia, I played out of Gygax’s AD&D books, I played out of the 2nd Edition books, and eventually was dragged kicking and screaming into 3.0 and 3.5, where I spent the next decade. I didn’t get to play (but read) the 4E books, and have been off and on playing 5E since the day that it came out. I have played Pathfinder and 13th Age and I like a lot of what they bring to the table, but let’s face it, they are still D&D. I would guess that something like 90% of the hours I have actually spent playing tabletop RPGs have been in D&D.
But I am not playing it right now. And I am doing that, partially, so I can get better at D&D.
A little over a year ago, I challenged my home group to take a one year break from D&D. It was mainly because I had continued to become more and more aware of all of these other games; a buddy of mine ran a FATE Core game for about a year, which we made into an actual play you can find here. I backed the second edition of APOCALYPSE WORLD because I had been hearing about it and devoured it. It read like a profane graduate thesis in rethinking how you run any game!
So at this stage I started to devour and take a chance to play any game I hadn’t played before, from Mouse Guard to Call of Cthulhu to Night’s Black Agents. I learned a tonne of stuff and eventually ended up running a Star Trek Adventures game on Roll20, a Numenera game with my regular group, and playing an amazing Savage Rifts group. This all led me to write this challenge.
You need to stop playing D&D. Play and read all the other games you can. Come back to D&D after a bit. It’ll change your life.
That being said, I know most of you won’t take that advice, so being the good sport that I am, I have a few things that I have learned based on the games that I have been reading and playing.
1) FATE Core - Zones
I have started to use zones when I am running more tactical games that typically can either require or heavily suggest a grid map. Now, I am no opponent to grid maps, but there is no replacing theatre of the mind for ensuring that you are really envisioning the most badass things your character can do. So, in FATE as opposed to things like D&D you don’t use grids or hexes, you have zones. With zones, you break up an encounter into sections of the space in which people are acting.
Let’s use a bar fight for example, you would take out some Post-It notes or index cards and on one, you would write, “Common Room,” on the next, “Behind the Bar,” and on the next, “The Back.” We decide where our players are given those cards and then we can even place markers representing them on those cards. Each zone card represents an area of the bar that PCs can be in, or move into our out of.
Now, players can do pretty much anything, make their attacks, move around, etc., within a single zone. The amount of feet moved doesn’t need to be tracked, but passing outside of a zone means you used your full movement to get there, assuming it is feasible to move between the zones. If the door to the “Back Room” is locked, you may have to be more creative to move from the “Common Room” to the “Back Room.” This helps decide if folks get hit by an area of effect, decides what enemies are where and seeing which PCs, but beyond that it takes all of the grid-tracking usually required.
Of course, if the fight takes them into zones that you haven’t put down at the beginning, simply add them. They head out the back door? Now give a quick description of it and add a card that says “The Alley.” Goes the other way? “The Street.” See?
I find this stuff a little less effective in large scale or longer distance battles, but it is really effective at managing indoors, and small, dirty, battles with lots of terrain types or changes.
2) Numenera - Less DM Dice Rolling
In Numenera, the Game Master doesn’t touch dice. If a player wants to say, make an attack, they roll against the rank of the thing they are attacking, and if that thing wants to attack them back, the player rolls to defend. It is a simple and elegant system, and no one at the table is unsure if the GM is taking it easy or going hard on the group. Everything is all out in the open. Now, I am personally (but your fun isn’t wrong, it’s just me) against fudging rolls from behind a DM Screen. If I know or suspect that my DM is doing that, I automatically have about 25% less fun according to my calculations. The main reason? I want to know that the spectacular thing I accomplish was accomplished by me, not because the DM took pity.
So now, when I DM for D&D, I try to make most if of my rolls out in the open, for everyone to see. It adds tension to the table, people are staring at the dice as it tumbles across the table, wondering if the big bad is going to smash down their character, and I think it is the ultimate in fairness.
3) Apocalypse World - Threat Clock
I haven’t personally used this one yet, but I am aching for an opportunity to try it. In Apocalypse World the basic use of the clock is to provide a visual of rising threats in the fiction of the world that you are playing in. There are several things that can raise the threat level and if it hits say, “midnight” then something happens. Something like this is used in the D&D 5E adventure Out of the Abyss wherein *SPOILERS* a crew of drow hunters are pursuing your party, and if you do certain things, like leave a trail, wait too long in one place, or if the dice gods hate you, they can get closer and just spring on you wherever in the story you are, regardless of whether you are ready for them. I think that is a very effective tactic in making situations in your world somewhat unpredictable and tense.
In D&D I would adapt the Threat Clock to be specific to whatever you are facing. Let’s say for example the threat that is designated in your world is that the cultists are trying to raise a forgotten dark god to destroy the world. Every time that your players do something that hinders that, move the hand on the clock back, and every time they do something that either takes too much time or fails to hinder, or even helps them, the clock moves forward. If it hits midnight, something terrible happens. At lower levels it could be that the cultists find out that the players are after them and start to dispatch assassins. Mid-level, maybe they can summon a couple of demons to hunt the players or even that they suddenly change their plans to befuddle the players’ plans. High Level? Announce that if the clock hits midnight one to three (depending on how often it is happening for your group) times, the dark god will be raised. Each time it does, something bad happens, until the end of all things is upon the world.
4) 13th Age - One Unique Thing
OK, this may be cheating a bit, as I stand by my assertion that 13th Age is still technically D&D. That being said, it’s fantastic designers (Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, the lead designers of D&D 3rd and 4th Editions) have done a few things that are elegantly simple and add a bunch to gameplay. The one that I keep coming back to us your One Unique Thing. The One Unique Thing is something about your character that is completely different from everyone else. It provides no mechanical benefit but should be something that helps to define your character and at its best, provides a springboard for stories involving that aspect of your character.
For example, if your One Unique Thing is that you are “The last in a long line of warriors sworn to protect a dying religion” that sparks a lot of questions that can be answered in gameplay. Why are you the last? Why is the religion dying? What is the religion? And so on. At best, these things are not fully defined previous to gameplay but are discovered organically during gameplay.
5) Night’s Black Agents - GUMSHOE Style Investigations
In Night’s Black Agents you play disavowed spies uncovering a supernatural conspiracy, it is a game about investigations. And you know what is super not fun about most D&D investigations? Binary pass/fail rolls. Let’s face it, rolling a d20 an then adding a bonus or two, especially at low levels, mean that skills are very swingy, giving a relatively high percentage that “expert” characters routinely fail to notice things or find clues, or see something out of the corner of their eye, etc. They either do or they don’t. The GUMSHOE rules system was designed to address that problem, by just making any clue that was imperative to move the plot along, automatic. And the more I thought about it the more that I realized that that is exactly how it should be. How fun is it to have your plot grind to a halt because of one bad roll? Zero! It is zero fun.
In GUMSHOE, the primary clue is automatic, but you can spend skill points to get additional detail or additional clues that help. This can be easily adapted into D&D by allowing the roll, but no matter what that roll is, they get the main clue, the rest is to see extra detail or additional clues that may provide more context or speed up the investigation. And yes, that means that if you are playing that a Nat 1 is a critical fumble of some type on skill rolls, they need to be able to both fumble and get the clue.
OK, so you probably don’t have to stop playing D&D to learn these things.
I am just going to suggest that you read and play as many other games as possible, even just to try them and learn from them, because let me tell you, the designers of D&D do, they always have, and it make them better. And a version of 6th Edition’s best and most innovative mechanic is already out there being used somewhere, and it’s awesome.
Quinn C. Moerike is the CEO and Managing Partner of High Level Games, and is continuously working on a million projects. Right now, he is working with a team here at High Level Games to develop a new setting featuring anthropomorphic heroes for Savage Worlds called Archons of Nikud. He is also the resident grognard here and deeply appreciates his childhood tactical play of moving ten feet and then checking for traps.
Picture Reference: https://www.amazon.com/Numenera-Corebook-Monte-Cook/dp/1939979005
There has been a lot of complaining about the Pathfinder playtest, and believe me, I’ve done my share of it. And though I summed up what I felt was wrong with the game as a game back in October with My Final Thoughts on The Pathfinder 2nd Edition Playtest, I’d like to talk about something tangential that I feel hasn’t been covered as much in the debate of whether or not the playtest is or is not a good game.
Because I’ll admit that it’s functional, even if I feel it’s held together with duct tape and string in a couple of places. However, what it is not is Pathfinder as we know it.
That isn’t just grognard-speak for, “This new version of the game isn’t the one I learned, so therefore it’s ruined!” either. Because Pathfinder wasn’t just another fantasy RPG in a market where you can hit one of those by chucking a rock. It was a game with a very distinct identity, as well as a unique heritage that allowed it to fill a particular niche. It had a brand, and the people who played it (or who asked about it) understood what made it different from the competition.
This new version we’ve seen and played, though, doesn’t carry through any of that uniqueness, and it feels like it’s trying to ride the brand name without offering any of the things that players associate with the brand. For example…
1) Copying What’s Popular (Instead of Being The Unique Stand-Out)
When Pathfinder first claimed its market share, it did so by lifting the falling light of the DND 3.5 engine. There were other games using it, sure, but Paizo took that engine and made it bigger, faster, louder, and stronger. They carved out their own niche, and when the 4th Edition of DND under-performed, Pathfinder existed as a viable alternative that was mechanically different from 4th Edition in a lot of meaningful ways.
This new playtest, though, feels like it’s trying to play catch-up rather than stand-out.
While it’s true that it isn’t exactly the same as Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, you can see whose homework Paizo was copying with this playtest. And while 5th Edition is a stand-out in the marketplace, it’s on the other end of the kind of play that Pathfinder tends to be associated with. So it feels like Paizo is just trying to be more like the latest success story, which isn’t working because that game already exists, and this attempt to hybridize it is just not going to appeal to players who like Classic Pathfinder or players who like 5th Edition.
2) Limiting Mechanical Freedom
One of the biggest selling points Pathfinder has, in my view, is the sheer amount of mechanical freedom it offers. If you have a character concept, there is probably some way you can make it happen using the rules and options as they exist. And you aren’t just re-skinning an existing mechanic so that it looks different; you have the specific mechanics you need to manifest your idea.
My best example for this is playing someone descended from storm giants. In 5th Edition, for example, there is nothing that stops you from making this claim. You can use it to justify a maxed-out strength score, and describe your character as blocky and gray-skinned. If you’re playing Pathfinder, though, you can take a feat that states explicitly that you are a storm giant for all effects related to race. And if you take a second feat, you are now immune to any effects of electricity damage. It’s more than story justification; according to the physics of the world, you have storm giant heritage.
There are dozens of examples in Pathfinder Classic of this kind of mechanical freedom. You want to play a character that’s half-orc and half-elf? Cool, take this racial option and this feat. You now have a half-elf with a bite attack and tattoos, or a half-orc that can do tricks with a bow usually reserved only for elves. You want to play a Jekyll and Hyde character who literally transforms into someone else? There’s a prestige class for that. You want to be a celestial being raised on another plane who is coming to the material world as a foreigner? There’s options for that, too!
The playtest, though, is all about rigidity of path and tamping down on your mechanical freedom as a player. Multiclassing is discouraged to the point that it feels token, all classes are forced to make choices that narrowly define their abilities and progression, and the new feat system has all the complexity of the old one without any of the mix-and-match ability you had to make exactly the character you want to play.
One of Pathfinder’s greatest strengths as an RPG was the flexibility of its mechanics, and how you could blend them to form exactly the concept you wanted without having to bend any of the rules as they were presented. In this playtest you’re stuck with archetypes whose abilities are rigidly defined, and which gives you almost no options to meaningfully deviate from the path that’s been laid before you.
3) Pointless Complication
Pathfinder was always the crunchier fantasy game on the market. If you like a game that had rules for what penalties you deal with when you’re drunk, to exactly what saves you need to make to avoid drug addiction, then Pathfinder was your jam. However, even if you found some of the rules cumbersome or unnecessary, you could at least envision situations where they would be useful.
The playtest kept all the complexity, but distanced it from scenarios where it helped rather than hindered.
The best example of this is the bulk system. In Pathfinder Classic (and most games with encumbrance rules) you simply look at your Strength score, and that tells you your light, medium, and heavy loads, as well as your maximum amount of ability to lift, push, etc. The playtest uses a bulk system, which means you have to look up an individual item, determine what its bulk value is, and then run your attribute through a formula to figure out how much bulk you can carry.
You might argue that they were just trying to do something different, but any playtester would have told you immediately it was a bad idea. It overcomplicates a simple mechanic that most players would like to ignore in the first place, so why would you do that?
You see it all over the place in the playtest. If you want to make a combat maneuver like a disarm check or a grapple (things that, previously, any character could just try to do), now you need to make a specific skill check. Not only that, but if you’re not trained in that skill, then you may not even be able to attempt the thing you’re trying to do. It’s the same line of thought that staggers out your racial abilities over a dozen levels, because it makes complete sense for a half-orc to get darkvision only once they’ve killed enough monsters to activate the eyes they were born with.
Pathfinder players aren’t scared of a complicated game. But they’re used to the complications at least making sense, and too much of this game seems to have been complicated for no other reason than to make it crunchier even if those changes added nothing to the experience but irritation.
For more gaming thoughts from Neal Litherland, check out his Gamers archive, his blog Improved Initiative. To read his fiction, drop by his Amazon Author Page!
Picture Reference: https://paizo.com/pathfinderplaytest
While scanning your monster manual for fresh nasties to batter and maim your closest friends, you may be tempted to flip past the Stirge. As a tiny beast with four measly hitpoints you might fail to see its value as an adversary to even the lowest level adventurers. Stop. I’m about to teach you five steps to turn a buzzing gnat into pure terror and all-out panic.
For the uninitiated, the Stirge is a horrid flying thing that looks like a mixup between a bat and a mosquito. Its wingspan is roughly two feet across, and a six-inch long proboscis hangs limp from its face. To feed, the creature flexes powerful jowl muscles, transforming its sagging sucker into a ridged spike that it plunges deep into the flesh of its prey, drawing great volumes of blood as sustenance. They’re weak, they’re crunchy, they’re barely a snack, but when run right the stirge is absolute nightmare fuel.
1) Scourges Of Stirges
A stirge is like a locust or a rat. A pest by itself, but like all pests, you’ll almost never find it by itself. Stirges travel in scourges. No seriously, that’s the collective noun for a group of the horrid things. If you encounter one or two of these bloodsuckers a good crack with the business end of a heavy stick will probably do the job, but a scourge of stirges is something very different.
This is where you abandon the standard course for encounter design. Most encounters are fought to the bitter end. Not this one. Stirges travel in swarms so big that no adventuring party could exhaust their numbers. Maybe no army. Like locusts they descend on entire towns, leaving utter devastation in their wake. Where locusts obliterate crop fields, stirges suck the literal life out of every warm-blooded creature they can get their creepy pincers on; livestock and people alike.
Step one is to think of stirges as an event rather than an encounter. It’s not something you come across, it’s something horrifying that happens to you, to the town you’re in, to the community of people you’ve sworn to protect. A stirge encounter should be run like a hurricane.
2) Foreshadow The Event To Build Suspense
In The Birds, Hitchcock didn’t drop flocks of feral seagulls out of the sky without warning. He lets the tension build throughout the film by gathering more and more of them on wires and jungle gyms.
Set up the encounter long in advance by making your players think about the stirges before they’re a threat. Have a few perched on fence posts or circling above like vultures, then have their numbers gradually grow. Have townspeople who have experienced scourges of stirges in the past start becoming unnerved and then unglued as more of the little beasties arrive, as sheep and cattle start turning up dead with big hideous sucker holes in their sides. Give some of those people big old scars from proboscis wounds in their own necks and chests. Make this place well aware of what’s coming.
Watch the drive-in scene from the movie Twister. These people live where tornadoes are a persistent threat. Most days are normal days, but the threat of an unstoppable cataclysmic force dropping out of the sky is always looming. When the winds pick up, it takes about a minute for absolute panic to set in. That’s the way to run a stirge event. The people of this community know the danger they’re in better than the party does, but they’re about to learn.
3) A Scourge Is Not A Stirge
A stirge will grab onto you, plunge its proboscis deep into your flesh and suck the blood out of your body. That’s the threat. Absolutely horrifying obviously, but I want to impress upon you that the threat of a scourge of stirges is much more than just a lot of that.
Don’t get me wrong, it is going to be a lot of that. One after another of these repulsive bloodsuckers are going to latch on and pierce you with their fleshy spike-ended mouth-straws, and if you rip one off, two more are going to take its place. I just don’t want you to think that that’s the extent of your problems. What happens when a few hundred of them land on the roof of the rickety old barn you’re hiding in? It collapses on your head. If you’ve never been smashed in your face place by a big swinging joist take my word for it, you’re going to lose half a skull and a good bit of brain. With that many wild things thrashing around, mounted torches and candle sticks are going to get jostled. Things are going to catch on fire. People are going to go crazy. Your party will be dealing with absolute pandemonium, and anything you can dream up that goes along with that.
4) Keep Them Outside, Keep Them Moving, Make Shelter Scarce
If you’ve ever had to deal with a hornets nest you know that the terror mostly disappears when you scamper flailing back into your house and the door clacks shut behind. Don’t give your party that. Give them reasons to go outside. Give them long distances to run with only a few sparse overhangs, tree branches, or wood-sheds to crowd into for moments of respite before they’re overcome again. If they find a really good shelter give them a moment to build up that false sense of security before burning it to the ground. Give them children and infirm elders to protect in wide open spaces. Watch The Birds, The Mist, Twister, The Swarm, or any other movie where people are trying to survive a catastrophic event by hiding in doors. You’ll find that there’s always a reason to go outside.
5) Lay Waste And Move On
I think this final point is the one that really matters for inspiring a feeling of earnest dread. When the event is finally over, it’s not because the party saved the day. It’s not because of some daring do or some heroic sacrifice. It ends the way most catastrophic events end: without rhyme or reason. The sky clears, the daylight returns, the scourge moves on. It leaves of its own volition and you realize that you’re powerless against it.
Then you’re left with the aftermath. A town has been raised, people have died, the communities entire store of livestock has been decimated, and now they must recover. A stirge event reminds us that while our characters may be heroes of great power, the world they inhabit contains dangers well beyond even them.
With these five steps you can turn a 4hp ⅛ CR monster into an event that your players are sure to never forget. From that moment on, anytime a stirge turns up or flies by you’ll send waves of terror rippling across the table, and they’ll never look at a mosquito the same. Good luck!
Ryan Cartner and Dustin Hoogsteen are indie tabletop game designers at epiclutesolo.com. They are creating one game every month in 2019. You can download the first of these twelve planned releases for free at www.epiclutesolo.com/blog/games
Picture Reference: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/432204895463483101/
D&D Beyond has been around for a while now. It promised a new way to access the game system and new tools to help with our games. I've spent a lot of time using D&D Beyond as a DM and player, so I think it's time for me to give it a proper review. Here are six things I like and a bit about what I don’t.
1) Quick Rules Reference
This has got to be the number one benefit to using D&D Beyond; I use this more than anything. As long as I'm spelling my search right it works well. D&D Beyond helps a bit with misspellings, suggesting as you type via dropdown, and after the search across the top in a “did you mean” fashion after the search as well. Searching for a spell or monster in the middle of combat is fast and will even show a preview of the top result so I can start reading right away. In addition to searching, having multiple tabs open to different characters, monsters, or spells is a wonderful substitution for phone pictures, typing in notes, or especially copying everything by hand. Linking is also possible if you want to have an encounter ready in OneNote, or your own digital note taking tool. If you dig into the code a bit (or use a chrome extension) you can even link to specific headers on the page! I have even set up a DM screen in OneNote with links to the appropriate rules.
2) Popup Information
Something as simple as a small window popping up while hovering over a link is so elegant it makes popups a top feature for me; one I want in everything now. Hovering over a hyperlinked spell, actions, conditions, items and other mechanical bits will give you a quick popup (providing your resolution is above a certain threshold) detailing that bit. It's super useful for conditions and spells. You can even add these into your own homebrew creations.
3) Traveling Light
I am an over-prepared DM. I like to have a lot of things ready at my table if I need them. Sometimes I pack a rolling bag full of minis to bring to a game. With D&D Beyond, I can leave all the books at home. With eight rules references and twelve adventures as of this writing, this lot can get big. I also have all the monsters, items, and characters bits from all the adventures integrated into the main lists, saving me having three books open at once for one monster casting spells. A tablet paired with my All Rolled Up makes it so I can have all my 5e gaming needs (and any others system in pdf) in a small, easily portable package.
4) Custom Homebrew And Tools
The D&D Beyond team has been working hard at delivering editors to create our own (at the time of this writing) backgrounds, feats, magic items, monsters, races, spells and subclasses. They've even made adding homebrew an easy task, not some technical chore, so you can let your creative juices flow. Using D&D Beyond with chrome opens up a whole other avenue of customization with plugins that let you easily link sections, as well as organize and build your own encounters, initiative lists, and even add links on maps to their respective room descriptions! The team has really supported the community in the building of the site.
5) Sharing Books
While still limited to three campaigns D&D Beyond lets you share your whole library with anyone in those campaigns. You can post notes (and DM secrets) to the campaign, whitelist homebrew content (your as well as others), and, as a DM view character sheets. This is great during preparation if you are looking to notify everyone of something, such as the next game time, and creating encounters balanced to the party.
6) Printing And Reading
I've encountered a couple of tricks while using D&D Beyond. Viewing on a mobile device, or with a browser at a smaller width, and using a scrolling screenshot, I can screenshot an item and print it out on a three by five card to hand out to my players. Reading on mobile or tablet is nice, especially with the app that is in beta, but I do most of my reading on a kindle. With the save to kindle extension installed in chrome I can view the books a chapter at a time and send them formatted for reading to my kindle.
All in all, I find D&D Beyond to be a boon to DMs but not as useful to players. The site is being worked on and updated constantly, however. More and more non-retail book content is being added, like Lost Laboratory of Kwalish and the Tortle Package, and two Extra Life donation rewards. Someday maybe even non Wizards of the Coast products will be on there. There is no reason for me not to embrace this fully, as while I love the feel of a book, I prefer to stay digital because of space and manufacturing resources. The only downside to digital that I've encountered is not being able to flip through the book to find a specific page by sight.
Richard Fraser has been roleplaying since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and started with the red box in the eighties. He currently prefers to DM fifth edition D&D, though reads a lot of OSR and PbtA. He currently has podcast, Cockatrice Nuggets and maintains a blog, both of which can be found at www.slackernerds.com.
Picture provided by the author
My earliest RPG experiences were with Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, 4e, and Pathfinder. These are (each in their own right) wonderful games, full of arcane character options and high-powered tactical abilities that make it fun to build characters and fight monsters. However, while I have nothing against them personally, these are games I would have little to no interest in ever playing again and certainly never GMing again. This is in part because playing only those games gave me a narrow perception of what tabletop RPGs can be. Even D&D 5th edition, while more streamlined, is still far from my ideal game. I don’t mean to incite anyone to anger, again I have nothing against it personally, but for anyone with any interest in this artistic medium, it’s important to recognize that there are other kinds of games with other kinds of assumptions. With that knowledge, one can best leverage the strengths of a given system, or find the system best suited to a given game or to their preferred style, or bring aspects from one system to another. With that in mind, here are four games that changed how I think about tabletop RPGs.
1) Tenra Bansho Zero
This is a Japanese tabletop roleplaying game, one of the few that has been translated into English, and one of the first non-d20 games I ever read, although unfortunately I still have not played it. I would like to play it one day, but even if I never do, even just reading it opened up my mind to new ways to think about tabletop RPG mechanics. The setting is a science-fantasy alternate universe based heavily on Japanese culture, history, and mythology. It explores subjects such as the introduction of Buddhism into Japanese culture and its relationship with Shintoism, the conflict between the indigenous peoples of Japan and the ethnic Japanese, and the psychological impact of transhumanism through body horror. The biggest hook of the system, to me, was the karma mechanic. During character creation, you may accrue karma points to give your character stat boosts or special abilities, and karma can also be spent in-game to succeed when you would otherwise fail or do things that would normally be impossible, a sort of cinematic “anime-mode.” However, if you accrue enough karma, you become an asura, a demon, and your character is taken away from you to become an antagonistic NPC. Characters have a series of personal goals, and accruing these goals allows you to accrue points which can be converted to karma, but also resolving these goals allows you to relieve karma. While the mechanics in games like D&D 5e tend to focus on combat, the idea of using game mechanics to reflect a narrative or philosophical construct radically changed how I thought about what tabletop RPGs can be.
2) Narrative / Story Games (E.g. Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, FATE)
Narrative or story games are generally defined as systems that are simple, flexible, and intended to facilitate a particular kind of narrative. There are some contentions around the usage and definitions of these terms, but for the purpose of this article I think this is a useful way of thinking of these games. FATE uses a simple and customizable skill pyramid as the skeleton of all of its mechanics. Characters can effectively do anything it would make sense for them to be able to do from a narrative perspective by rolling a relevant skill. They may spending FATE points on aspects, short descriptors that interact with the environment or narrative, to give themselves benefits to their rolls. Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, and other Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games are constructed for a very specific setting or genre. Actions are engaged with moves, meant to facilitate character interaction or interaction with the narrative. These actions are resolved with given degrees of success and failure on the roll that always keep the game moving forward. Both can be easily modified and are designed to be modified, but I like FATE Core for one-shots since it’s so simple and has a cinematic, fail-forward approach to gaming. I’m still wrapping my head around PbtA games, sometimes I feel like the mechanics in those games just get in the way of me doing what I would be doing anyway, but for someone with no experience with this style of play, these games can serve as good instructions for how to tell compelling narratives in a tabletop RPG.
3) Cypher System (Particularly Numenera)
Cypher system, initially created for the game Numenera, was designed by Monte Cook, one of the lead designers of D&D 3rd edition. He is a somewhat controversial figure in tabletop, but regardless of what you think of him as a person or businessperson, he is undoubtedly one of the most influential figures in tabletop. Cypher is hands-down my favorite system, and while it seems to have carved a niche for itself, I think it’s a shame that it’s not more popular. Monte has stated that he designed the system as a way to correct for some of what he perceives as mistakes he made with D&D 3rd edition, and it feels as a result like a blend of the aforementioned narrativist games and traditional D&D, with some unique mechanics I have not seen anywhere else. It is super easy to run as a GM, with most obstacles or enemies being reducible to a single number. It also finds a strong balance between a wide variety of relatively deep character options that make character building fun, but does not pigeon-hole you into specific builds or become so deep or complex as to stifle storytelling. Many people seem to struggle with its three stat-pool system, which acts effectively as HP and ability points which can be spent to lower the difficulty of tasks as resolved by a d20 roll, but I think if you can wrap your head around it, it’s one of the most distinct and flexible mechanics of any RPG (although that may require a post unto itself).
The Numenera setting is also excellent. The book is packed full of beautiful art, the system is embedded within the game so the Cypher core book is not required, and the setting itself is flexible and open to interpretation. It’s a post-post-apocalyptic, far-future science fantasy setting, one where ancient and advanced technologies indistinguishable from magic are utilized by a medieval world that has sprung up in this glorious refuse. Besides being a perfectly weird setting in itself, it also explains how to build a weird world and tell stories within such a setting in a way that really changed how I thought about worldbuilding. Despite having read so many science fantasy novels, I don’t think I really understood what makes weird worlds work until reading Numenera.
4) OSR (e.g. Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells)
OSR, or old school renaissance (some people prefer to say revival), refers to retro-clones of old school (pre-3rd edition) D&D or games derived from those systems. OSR is defined by a complex and highly debated set of properties and sensibilities, but is usually associated with player skill over character skill, intentional lack of game balance, high challenge, low heroics, high mortality, randomization, and GM “rulings” over rules. While once narrow in scope, this term has more recently been associated with games that share these sensibilities but are not strictly tied to old school D&D. Popular examples of OSR games include the weird 17th century-esque Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the slightly more mechanically deep Dungeon Crawl Classics, and more recent games like Into the Odd, Maze Rats, and Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells, which are novel systems in their own right. Honestly, OSR is not my preferred style of play, but it is certainly an interesting way to think about tabletop gaming. It is distinct from the crunchier, more tactical games like D&D 3.X, Pathfinder, and D&D 5e, and also from the narrative games. It is worthwhile to understand the history of the medium, and also to explore this new branch of an old style of game, and if nothing else, it has attracted a scene of writers and artists doing really weird, avant garde, novel worldbuilding and game designing. Quite frankly I think it’s the most interesting work in tabletop gaming at the moment.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of every game you should play (or read), but these are a handful of games or game-types that have informed how I think about tabletop RPGs. I know I spend a lot of time in my articles talking about worldbuilding, and I consider myself a worldbuilder first and foremost, but game mechanics can inform a setting. Two games set in Forgotten Realms or some other traditional fantasy setting can feel completely different depending on whether you’re playing the heroic, tactical D&D 5e, or playing the deadly OSR games which encourage roguish behavior. A karma system like Tenra Bansho Zero allows you to explore philosophical conceits within the game itself. Narrative games allow you to tell a collaborative genre story without the game mechanics getting in the way of the story. Systems like Cypher may give you the best of all worlds, and a setting book like Numenera may make you a better worldbuilder and GM. No need to trash your D&D 5e or Pathfinder books, but if you’ve ever thought, “I wonder what else I can do?”, give some of these games a look!
Max Cantor is a graduate student and data analyst, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes people will use or be inspired by his ideas!
Picture Reference: https://cdn.pixabay.com/photo/2016/07/07/16/46/roll-the-dice-1502706_1280.jpg
As an advocate of solo D&D, one of the most frequent questions I hear is “how do I get started?”
Such a question, when posed in a setting such as a D&D Facebook group, can elicit a wide range of responses.
“You can’t play D&D solo. It’s a social game…”
“I think there were some solo modules that came out with first edition...”
“You mean video games, right?”
...which can all be a bit discouraging for someone eager to get into a bit of solo play.
Despite what you may have heard, solo play has been part of D&D since the very beginning. The first edition Player’s Handbook was released with a solo adventure included to teach the basic rules. This was my introduction to the game, and being my first experience of D&D, is probably why I spend a big chunk of my time creating solo resources for players. Also, TSR created many solo modules for use with the first and second editions of the game, in particular the XSOLO series. Some of you may even be familiar with gamebook such as Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf, and if you grew up in the 80s (especially in the UK or New Zealand or Australia) and were into D&D, chances are you were into those gamebooks as well. In the US, “Choose Your Own Adventure” books were a big hit, but I never got into these as they never called for dice rolls or combat scenarios.
This is not to detract from the social aspect of the game in any way. In fact, as you will see, it adds to and supports the social aspect. This is for those times in between games, or when you can’t find a group to play with.
There are a number of reasons why someone might want to play solo D&D, but probably the main one is that they can’t find a game. With that in mind, I have compiled a list of five things that will get you started playing D&D solo. And by solo, I mean without a Dungeon Master.
1) Get A Flipmat And Minis
To really make your solo play tangible, tabletop is the best way to go. And the best way to do that is to get yourself a flipmat and some minis. Paizo put out a product called “Pathfinder Flip Mat: Basic Terrain Multi Pack” which is a set of two, double-sided flipmats that portray wilderness, dungeon, ocean and urban backgrounds for you to draw on with dry erase markers.
Add miniatures to this, and you’re all set. Of course, Wizards of the Coast has a huge range of minis for every class, which you can find online or at your local game store. My method is to buy the mini, then create the character that fits with it.
You can start tabletop adventuring even cheaper than this. Go and buy a bunch of one inch washers from your local hardware store, then get some sticky paper and a one inch holepunch. Find a cool image for your PC, then print it onto sticky paper, punch it out with the holepunch (or adhere it to the washer and cut around the edge with scissors) and voila! Flat, circular tokens for your gameboard. You can do the same with monsters also.
If you are really strapped for cash, you could use coins or even dice to represent PCs and monsters. And you can find all sorts of great maps on Dungeon Master’s Guild (there’s a lot of free maps packs) and sites like dundjinni.com. With a little creativity, you can have a cost-effective tabletop setup in no time.
2) Question / Answer Mechanic
All right, you’re all set up and ready to get started with your solo tabletop campaign. What now?
You are going to need some tools to effectively replace the Dungeon Master. And the most important of these is a question/answer mechanic.
Simply put, this is a way of getting answers to questions using dice rolls as you journey through the adventure. Solo adventuring is pointless unless we can create the adventure as we move through it, so that the twists and turns are revealed as we encounter them. The most well-known version of the question/answer mechanic is the Mythic GM Emulator, which uses D100 rolls to answer yes/no questions framed by the player. There are likelihood modifiers (adjusted according to the current situation) and also a Chaos Factor which goes up or down according to events within your game. Also, every time you roll a double (11, 22, 33, 44) you get a random event, the nature of which can be determined by rolling on another table (or by any table you might choose to introduce). Mythic GM Emulator is available on Drivethrurpg here).
In my product, The Solo Adventurer’s Toolbox (available on Dungeon Master’s Guild here), I created my own version of the question / answer mechanic which uses d20 rolls to get yes/no answers, with a likelihood modifier. This is basically a stripped-down version of the Mythic Mechanic.
Let me give you an example of a question / answer mechanic in action.
Lorna and Dumon, a druid and a ranger, enter the town of Wadale after several days on the road. Casting her eye about, Lorna looks for an inn.
At this point, the solo player poses the question: Is Lorna able to find an inn? (All questions need to be framed so they can be answered with either “yes” or “no”).
The town is a reasonable size, so it’s likely that there is an inn here. Using my own Q/A mechanic, the player can use the modifier +2 (Likely), and then make a d20 roll. The results could be as follows:
In this case, the result is an 11, but when we add the “Likely” modifier of +2, it pushes the result up to 13, which is a “Yes”. (If “maybe” is the result, then perhaps an investigation check is required). From this, we know that Lorna is able to find an inn. Now we can move to another table which tells us the nature of the inn, the name of the inn, what NPCs are there, and other details. Combining those elements with question / answer rolls, we can move through the adventure with ease.
3) Story Elements And Setting
It goes without saying that you will need a world for your adventurers to travel in. There is something to be said for using an established setting. All the worldbuilding has already been done for you, so when you reach Neverwinter in the Forgotten Realms (for example) all you need to do is grab your copy of the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting (or type “Neverwinter” into Google) and you will instantly see what sort of things your PC might be dealing with.
But then, there is homebrew as well. The beauty of soloing with homebrew is that you get to flesh out your world as you travel through it!
By “Story Elements” I am referring to a way of answering specific questions, or providing detailed answers that the question / answer mechanic is incapable of furnishing. In the Mythic system, there are the Event Meaning Tables, which provide 100 subjects and 100 actions. Using two d100 rolls, we can create infinite combinations such as Travel / A Burden, Malice/Magic, Inspect/Messages, Disrupt/Leadership and many, many others.
In The Solo Adventurer’s toolbox, I have a chapter called Story Element Interaction Tables which provides a list of basic situations according to terrain, accompanied by a list of 499 verbs which the player can roll on until a situation presents itself.
4) Tables. Lots Of Tables
In order to generate a wide variety of encounters, situations, locations, NPCs and all the other things that make up a campaign for your character, you will need a large selection of tables and random generators to help you generate these things. Let me introduce you to a few excellent tools that will help you create all the variables you need for your campaign.
DONJON RPG TOOLS: If you are not already familiar with this site, you need to get to know this one. This site is a go-to for DMs and contains generative tools for creating NPCs, taverns, merchants, monster encounters, loot, towns, dungeons… everything you need for a full campaign. Pair these resources with a question / answer mechanic, and you are underway. Check out the Donjon page here.
With a goal of creating a one-stop shop for soloing, I created a similar spread of tables for The Solo Adventurer’s Toolbox. But I also encourage players to use any tools that come to hand.
D100 TABLES: Here is another crazy resource that I found on Reddit one day. This is a community created selection of tables that covers just about everything you could think of, and more. Even if you’re not a solo player, this is well worth a look. Check out this insane collection of tables here.
And last, but by no means least, there is the concept of journaling, which is arguably the most crucial component of solo adventuring.
Simply put, journaling is the act of taking notes as you adventure, documenting your characters’ actions, discoveries, motivations, NPC interactions and everything else that occurs within the course of your campaign. There is no need to get overly detailed with your journaling. For example, you don’t want to be interrupting every stage of your quest to note: “Draxar moves down the corridor, then comes to a junction. He continues west, then comes to a door. It is locked. Taking out his thieves’ tools... “ etc. You don’t require that level of narration. Instead, you can let your PC complete stages of the quest, then summarise those stages in your journal.
What journaling does is make your adventuring concrete, and also provides you with a record of clues, quest notes, important NPCs and other things. It also goes a long way towards replicating DM narration. By entering the notes of the quest as you venture through it, you are effectively becoming a sort of pseudo-narrator yourself, telling the stories of your characters as they venture through your world. If you are venturing in your homebrew world, then these notes can form part of your worldbuilding.
And there is an added bonus to all this: once you are finished with your quest, you can convert the adventure concept for a full party. So your solo adventuring accomplishes two aims at once!
So, to summarise, solo D&D is definitely achievable, but we need to assemble a few tools to streamline the experience and make it easy and enjoyable. The five points listed above will be enough to get you started down the path of solo adventuring, and should provide you with a framework to create some meaningful and immersive quests.
With a view to facilitating freeform solo adventuring, I created a product entitled The Solo Adventurer’s Toolbox. It contains all the things listed above (apart from flipmat and minis) and much more, comprising a complete system for freeform solo adventuring within any world. However, following the points listed above should be enough to get you started.
Also, come and find us on Facebook: we have a group dedicated to solo adventuring named Dungeons & Dragons Solo Adventures. It’s a great community where you will find many tips and resources all related to solo adventuring.
Paul Bimler is a writer of solo adventures for D&D and releases under the small label 5e Solo Gamebooks. He also teaches music production and lives in the city of Christchurch in New Zealand. So far Paul has five gamebooks and a number of other products released on Dungeon Master's Guild. He also runs a Facebook page named D&D Solo Adventures.
Picture Reference: https://www.dmsguild.com/product/235268/DD-Solo-Adventure-Tables-Of-Doom--5E-Solo-Adventuring
Hooray! It’s Christmas time! Seeing as Santa is still busy making the gifts, we at High Level Games have taken it upon ourselves to gift you and your players preemptively, in an aggressive first strike against Santa. Our plans for jovial domination are not yet realized, and as such, this is primarily a way to distract you all long enough to not notice our Santa bots replacing the actual mythical figure. It’s time to receive our gifts!
1) The Coal Cannon
This is perfect for any campaign setting that has just a little bit of flintlock technology in it. Also suitable for magic settings. The coal cannon is the weapon Santa uses to fight off people who decide to assault the North Pole directly. It is a handheld cannon that takes one round to load with a piece of mundane coal. However, after being loaded, it grinds the coal up into shards and fires them at high velocity. As such, anyone within a ten foot cone in front of the user has to make a dexterity saving throw or be subjected to 3d10 piercing damage. There is, of course the option to heat the coal cannon. Once loaded, if the wielder waits a round or longer before firing the coal cannon, it begins to heat the coals, causing Xd6 fire damage where X is the number of rounds waited, on top of the base 3d10. However, if more than two rounds are waited, there is a 15% chance the coal cannon explodes. This destroys the item and causes 3d10 piercing damage and 5d6 fire damage to everyone in a 10 foot radius around the explosion.
An item like this is very useful, however it holds a lot of danger for the average user, particularly if they don’t know the full capabilities of the coal cannon. The item itself would be considered very rare or similarly difficult to come by, as Santa only produces a few of these: one for himself and some for his most elite guard.
2) The Cracker of Nuts
All know of the Nutcracker. It’s a simple tool often decorated during the holiday season to enhance feelings of Jolliness. However, this is no simple nutcracker. This is the Cracker of Nuts. The Cracker of Nuts is exactly the same in appearance to a normal holiday nutcracker, with the exception of it being labeled as “The Cracker of Nuts” on the base of the figurine in golden text, and it having truesight out to thirty feet. When any item small enough to fit inside the mouth of an average nutcracker is placed inside its mouth, the item transforms into a number of walnuts equal in value to the item used, oftentimes spilling out of the Cracker of Nuts mouth. Additionally, if walnuts are within the line of sight of the Cracker of Nuts, it transforms into a six foot tall version of itself and begins stomping on, or otherwise cracking all walnuts within sight.
The only issue with this otherwise comedic item is that there was a minor mistake in its creation. Once per year, on the 18th day of the 12th month, the Cracker of Nuts attempts to crack skulls as well as Nuts. On this day, any creature within the line of sight of the Cracker of Nuts is considered a walnut for the purposes of this magic item, and the Cracker of Nuts will commence the cracking. The Cracker of nuts has an AC of 18 (natural armor) and 225 hitpoints. It can take one action, being Crack, which deals 3d6 bludgeoning damage. His stats are listed below. The Cracker of Nuts is kept in a dungeon, in a cell by himself for the 12th month of the year, if it is located in a city or village.
The Cracker of Nuts:
3) The Chains of Krampus
We have begun to dabble in NSFNL (Not Safe For Naughty List) content. If you are on the naughty list, this is a very dangerous item indeed. These midnight black chains are warm to the touch and make anyone of evil alignment feel guilty when within ten feet of them. If the manacles are clamped onto a creature of evil alignment, the creature is considered frightened of the being that attached the chains on to it. Additionally, if the creature who put the chains on issues a command to the bearer of the chains, the creature must make a saving throw as per the Geas spell, with a difficulty class of 22. Lastly, as a bonus action, the creature who attached the chains can cause spikes to protrude inside the manacles, causing 2d4 piercing damage and causing the creature wearing the manacles to become petrified until a bonus action is used to release the creature from their petrification. The manacles have no effects on good or neutral aligned creatures, or Krampus himself. Fiends take 8d12 damage from the spikes inside the manacles when activated.
4) Hat of Festivities (Christmas Edition)
The Hat of Festivities is a fickle little item. However the Christmas variety is the least unpredictable. It grants the wearer a +2 to their AC as well as access to the Ray of Frost, Friends and Prestidigitation cantrips. Additionally the christmas edition grants the wearer resistance to frost damage. Hat of Festivities cannot be worn by anyone on the Naughty List (decided by the DM) and the hat will actively move off the heads of those on the Naughty List. Hats of Festivities only exist for the month in which their assigned holiday occurs, after which they disappear until they reappear the following year in a new location.
5) Gift of Giving
A delicate yet beloved magic item. The Gift of Giving appears around people who have just survived a hardship, such as a victorious army, a child surviving a sickness, an adventuring party narrowly escaping death and other similar situations. When someone opens the beautifully wrapped box and reaches in, roll percentile dice. A table is below to tell the DM what to give the character accordingly. The Gift of Giving is said to be a living creature that is made purely of sorrow, wanting only to spread cheer and kindness. When all creatures involved in the hardship have pulled something out of the box, it disappears, leaving behind the smell of peppermint in the air and a small note that says something kind to either the collective or each individual that took a gift.
01-25% - Trinket or Common Magical Item
26-50% - Uncommon or Rare Magical Item
51-75% - Very Rare or Legendary Magical Item
76-100% - Artefact or Gift they wanted as a child (because they can be just as important to a player)
I hope this helped spread some Holiday Cheer. Please, wherever you’re reading this, whatever holiday you’re celebrating, take a moment today and really bask in the knowledge that you’re here, and there’s so much good you can do in this world. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Jarod Lalonde is a young roleplayer 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 Cthulhu whispering to him in the small hours of the night, or just persistent flashbacks to the Far Realm.
Picture Reference: https://www.tribality.com/2014/12/24/dd-5e-holiday-adventure-the-darkest-night/
My earliest RPG experiences were with D&D 3.5e, 4e, and Pathfinder. These games are known for being “crunchy” (having many complex game mechanics), and 3.5e in particular was known for having a glut of supplemental materials of dubious quality. With these games, because of the breadth and depth of mechanics and the focus on tactical combat, supplemental materials often negatively impacted game balance, and that had a chilling effect on my perception towards homebrew or 3rd-party published content (materials not produced by Wizards of the Coast). Over the years I’ve moved away from those kinds of games, and towards more rules-light games like FATE, Cypher, and OSR (D&D 2e or earlier, or modern games built with a similar design philosophy or shared mechanics). One thing that I’ve found so refreshing and rewarding about these systems is how easy it is to modify the games to suit your needs, without having to worry too much about negatively impacting game balance. With some consideration, these modifications could even work for a medium-crunch game like D&D 5e. Here are 3 ways to modify games. Treat these as ways to think more about why the mechanics of a game exist, and how changing them affects game balance and the play experience, so that you can come up with your own modifications!
1) Power Points
Here I’m using power points to refer to any kind of system where players gain points for their actions, which can later be spent to affect future actions. These are often employed in “narrative” games, as with the fate points in FATE, to encourage players to roleplay and to interact with the world in a way that drives the plot forward. However, I think this system can be used for several other purposes, such as to fill “holes” in character builds, to bring a little cinematic flare to medium crunch tactical combat games, or even evoke unique themes.
I ran a campaign in my Phantasmos campaign setting using Numenera as the game system. The Phantasmos setting has various species and classes of its own, not all of which mapped cleanly to the options available in Numenera RAW (rules as written). Let’s use Arpaia the dogu apoptomancer as an example. Dogu are a species with several unique abilities such as shifting between a humanoid and monstrous form, and a sense of hyper-touch, and apoptomancers are a character class focused on the manipulation of controlled cell-death and the neuro-immune system to induce metamorphoses. Rather than constricting the player to a limited set of descriptors (like species) and foci (like feats) that reflect all of these varying and specific abilities, we had him train in the skills “dogu senses” and “apoptomancy,” which he could use to do things that his character should be able to do, but aren’t strictly built into his RAW character sheet. Importantly, if he were to use these skills in any way on a scale of power or utility comparable to his actual RAW special abilities, he would have to spend power points. Not only does this give him greater flexibility in character building and ensures that he can always do the things he should realistically be able to do, this encourages creative thinking and interactivity with the story to get power points and leverage his abilities.
A final note on power points: The game Tenra Bansho Zero has a really cool karma system, which is used both for character building and as power points. However, in that game, as you acquire more karma, you become increasingly likely to turn into an ashura, a demon. The point of the game is in-line with the Buddhist philosophy of separating oneself from material attachment (as expressed by resolving karma). The strengths and weaknesses of material attachment, the Buddhist themes of the setting, are actually instantiated within the game mechanics using power points!
2) Change The Dice
So this gets into probability theory, which really should be a whole post in its own right, but I’ll go over some basics here. While many games use a d20 for action resolution as a matter of convention, I think most good games are mindful of their dice. A d20 is a very different beast than a 3d6 or FATE dice system, and understanding these differences can radically change how a game “feels.” Note that I will not be discussing games which use dice pools here, as the probabilities get a bit more complex, and I think that would be better suited for its own post.
A d20 is a uniform distribution, meaning there is an equal probability of rolling any value, which from a range of 1 to 20 means 5%. The wide range and uniform distribution are why people often describe d20 as being “swingy,” meaning it is common to roll excessively high or low.
A 3d6 is a normal distribution, or bell curve, meaning that you are most likely to roll the mean, and the further from the mean a given value is, the less likely you are to roll that value. With a range from 3 (rolling [1,1,1]) to 18 (rolling [6,6,6]), 25% of the time you will roll a 10 or 11 (27 ways each to roll a 10 or 11) , whereas you will only roll a 3 or 18 <0.5% of the time each (because, as already stated, there is only one way to roll a 3 or an 18). This is why 3d6 is less swingy; most of the time you will roll somewhere near the middle of the distribution.
So despite the fact that these dice mechanics have very similar ranges, they have very different probabilities. I’ve already explained how this affects swinginess, but it also affects the impact of modifiers. Unlike a swingy d20, with 3d6, assuming a difficulty of 10 or 11, you’re more likely to narrowly miss or succeed, so the impact of a small modifier is greater. For example, normally you would have a 62.5% probability of rolling a 10 or greater. However, with a modifier of +1, the range is now 4 to 19, but the dice remain the same, so essentially you’re sliding the distribution up by 1. In other words, because a roll of 9 now gives you a value of 10 (roll+1), and there’s an 11.6% probability of rolling a 9, you can add that to the 62.5% for a 74.1% probability of rolling 10 or greater. With a d20, that +1 only nets you an increase of 5%! That being said, for d20, no matter how many modifiers you have, each nets you +5% towards a higher value, whereas with 3d6, because the probability of a given roll gets lower the further you go from the mean, higher modifiers give you diminishing returns.
It may help to think about weapons. In Dungeons & Dragons, a greataxe has a damage roll of 1d12, a uniform distribution comparable to a d20. Greatswords have 2d6 damage dice, a normal distribution. They average about the same; minor quibbles aside they are roughly equal in power, but they behave differently, and in a way that reflects a specific intention. Compared to the greataxe, the greatsword will be more reliable, it will generally deal about 6 damage, only occasionally doing exceptionally more or less. The greataxe will average about the same, but will swing wildly from very little damage, to very high damage.
Keep in mind that these dice distributions also affect character progression and relative power. In a game where dice modifiers improve over time (such as by leveling up), there will be a much larger difference between lower level characters in a 3d6 system than a d20 system, but a much larger difference between higher level characters in a d20 system than a 3d6 system. All of this is to say that dice matter!
There is so much more I could say about probabilities, but as a last aside, keep in mind that the range of values on a die also matter. For instance, for FATE dice, you roll 4 dice, each with two negatives, two neutrals, and two positives, meaning you have a normal distribution centered at 0. Because the range extends into the negatives, is a relatively narrow range of -4 to 4, and is centered at 0, the impact of a modifier will in general be much larger than a 3d6 system, where the range is much larger and entirely positive.
All of this is to say, if you understand how these distributions affect your game, you can substitute them safely. If you want to play D&D 5e where the game is less swingy, and where characters become significantly more powerful from level-to-level at lower levels, but there is less of a power curve at higher levels, just substitute your d20 for 3d6!
3) Combat Modifiers
Obviously not every game is about combat, or treats combat to varying degrees of abstraction, but even so, many games deal with combat, and often not well. Personally, I’ve always felt like coming up with tactical character builds in crunchier games is fun, and the idea of combat is fun, but in practice it often gets bogged down. Either the game is so crunchy that it’s slow and cumbersome, or the game is so light that it becomes rote and stale. However, there are some simple ways to make combat faster or more fun, without fundamentally altering the game!
The easiest thing is to abstract. As the GM, try to apply narrative flourishes to the enemies’ actions. Describe how they attack, how they defend, how they behave in response to the players (even if it’s just a matter of taunts or sneers or wide-eyed looks of apprehension). Encourage the players to do likewise. Regardless of what spell/ability/move they do, let them have fun with how they describe the flavor of that action. A “missed” attack is much more satisfying when it’s described as a sure strike that was deftly parried, or glinted off the enemy’s armor. This can be difficult to do at first, but the more you practice, the more natural it will become.
In terms of mechanics, one option is an escalation die. One way to implement the escalation die would be to have a d6 appear at the beginning of the second round facing 1, and increase the number each round, up to 6. All combatants gain the value of the escalation die to their attack bonus, so that as combat progresses, all combatants are more likely to hit, making the game deadlier. This creates tension, it makes weaker enemies potentially more dangerous if in large enough numbers, and it moves combat along quickly and in a satisfying way. This kind of modifier could be applied as a random roll instead, reflecting the randomness and deadliness of real combat, or could be set to a specific value as a way to signify the stakes of a given encounter. An alternative way to do an encounter die would be to have the die lower AC, increase the damage roll rather than the attack roll, or give the defender a counter-attack chance (x or lower on a d6 allows counter-attack / attack of opportunity, where x is the value of the escalation die), or activate special abilities from the enemy or evoke some other “event”, such as more enemies arriving or a change in the environment. In addition to affecting the flow of combat, these alternative options can also have fun narrative implications.
Manipulating quantities of enemies and action economy is another useful combat modification, especially for mass combat or “boss fights.” Hordes of weaker enemies may seem cool at first, but either they’re too weak, in which case they’re ineffectual and their turns are a boring waste of time, or they’re just powerful enough that through sheer number of actions they can overwhelm the players in a way that is also unsatisfying. Instead, by clumping these weaker enemies into a smaller number of more powerful swarms, the encounter can be faster and more engaging. Even quicker, one could make the entire swarm a single entity with multiple actions. Likewise, rather than defaulting to giving a “boss” enemy a swarm of underlings to balance the action economy, an especially big-bad could get multiple actions per turn, or for a literally big-bad like a kaiju, its body parts could be treated as separate entities.
These are all intentionally loose and system-neutral, to show how you can go about thinking of any game. Crunchier games will be harder to modify without accidentally creating imbalances or “breaking” the game in other ways, but even those games can be modified if you carefully consider what affects the modifications will have. Modifications can affect how a player perceives an encounter, how they build their characters, the balance of the game, and the flow of combat, and any number of other things. If you understand the game and understand what you and your players want, then you don’t have to be afraid of modifications!
Max Cantor is a former cognitive neuroscientist and soon to be data engineer, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes people will use or be inspired by his ideas!
Picture Reference: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MadScientist
While some campaigns and one-shots may start out at high levels, it seems most start between levels 1-3. If you’ve played Dungeons and Dragons long enough, you’re probably sick of fighting the same overused creatures at low levels. Goblins, kobolds, undead, and bandits are among some of the most common (and hence boring) adversaries for low level players. Other creatures like lycanthropes, fey, beasts, and myconids are less common, but still border on repetitive.
With just a little bit of creativity, and your trusty Monster Manual, you can feature these low-level, frequently forgotten creatures into your next one-shot or low level campaign. While they are 5e specific, similar creatures can be found or created for other TTRPGs.
1) Animated Objects
Think of an item. It could be something mundane and unassuming, or something rare, horrifying, or even rusty or rotting. Now imagine that item trying to kill you. Animated objects are usually used briefly in low level campaigns, but imagine building a whole module or one-shot out of them. Libraries full of flying books, armories full of weapons, and kitchens full of plates and utensils all animated to make your characters distrust every single item they see. There’s technically only three animated objects in the Monster Manual, but with generous sprinkling of the animate object spell, just about anything can be turned into a deady item.
Do you remember what a Bullywug is off the top of your head? I completely forgot about them until I paged through my Monster Manual again. They’re little frog people that love to terrorize those who trespass through their swamp. Sneaky, territorial, and willing to take captives, it’s a wonder I have never heard of them being used in low level play. While there is only one instance of them in the Monster Manual, give them some class levels in rogue, fighter, or wizard and not only will they make for a formidable story thread , but you can even scale them into higher levels of play. The swamp-based opportunities are abundant.
Who doesn’t find Jurassic Park both slightly terrifying and creatively immersive? It’s the perfect inspiration for a low level D&D campaign. Dinosaurs do it all: flying, swimming, running at high speeds with giant snapping maws. What’s not to love about a dinosaur campaign? With a total of six in the Monster Manual, they won’t require the creative effort of the bullywug, unless you want to scale them past CR 8. Finally, you can set them in almost any environment.
If we’re being honest, we’d have to admit that Lizardfolk are basically goblins that can hold their breath and ambush you from underwater. There’s less options for them in the Monster Manual (three stat blocks), and they are not as environmentally flexible as goblins are. I assume these are the reasons they’re not as popular as goblins or kobolds. However, their lore presents some great opportunities for a rich low level campaign. They craft great jewelry and tools, and have an awe of magic that could give a unique roleplaying opportunity to any magic users in your group. They love feasts and sacrifices, which can make for a great story elements. Finally, they worship dragons, and are often exploited by them. A low level Lizardfolk campaign could easily transition into a high stakes dragon plotline.
These little guys are so cute and have a lot of potential. But if you’re not running your sessions in Mechanus, there’s little plausible reason your players would encounter them. These little creatures are fun to run and to play against though, so pull up your creative britches and figure out a reason to run a few sessions with these guys. Maybe they’ve gone rogue, or maybe it’s time for the “Great Modron March.” No matter what you figure out, with at least five canonical options, you’re sure to have a great time playing with modrons.
Whether you’re able to make a short campaign out of these, or just stick to a one-shot, they’re sure to provide a type of fun that’s different than goblins, kobolds, and zombies (oh my!). There’s a lot of other low level creatures that we didn’t cover, but could still use some love. Check out the Monster Manual and Volo’s Guide to Monsters for even more ideas.
Ryan Langr is a DM, player, and content creator of Dungeons & Dragons 5e. His passions include epic plot twists, creating exceptionally scary creatures, and finding ways to bring his player’s characters to the brink of death. He also plays Pathfinder/3.5. In his real life, he is a stay at home dad, husband, and blogger of many other interests.
Photo credit: Goblin art by Armandeo64 (armandeo64.deviantart.com) CC BY-SA 4.0
The most important element in roleplaying is communication. Sometimes players will assume that their DM has understood what they are attempting, only to find out a scene later that their idea went completely over the DM’s head. The following listicle will help your DM understand you better and reduce any problems that originate from a lack of proper communication.
This sounds trivial but most players will almost always assume the goal and not mention it. “I want to climb the wall” sounds like a goal but it isn't, because it doesn't let the DM know why you are trying to climb the wall. “I want to get to the top of the wall so I have a better position from which to shoot my bow” says clearly what your intention is. Without a clear goal, the DM may misunderstand and end up narrating a result that you didn't expect. Sometimes this issue can be solved immediately, but in other cases this won't become apparent until after the encounter. At which point arguments ensue: “During the fight I climbed the trees, but it never gave me any protective cover!” “Well, you just said that you wanted to climb the trees. You never told me why.”
How you are going to do what you are attempting. This is the big one because here you can be creative and ingenious. Your DM might even reward you with some in-game bonus depending on how you do it. Climbing a wall barehanded isn’t the same as using a grappling hook. A single goal usually has many ways of achieving it, so don’t always go for the trivial option. Imagine the surrounding environment, what things are around that can be used. The DM will usually not be exhaustive in his description which leaves room for imagination. This is also a good time to look through your inventory. DMs will usually pick the most obvious means, if one is not specified, and assume you are using no equipment. This can result in losing potential positive modifiers to your skill test or, even worse, getting negative modifiers!
Do not leave the skill test choice to your DM. Some games have an exhaustive list of skills and your DM won’t have all your skills memorized. He does not know what you are good at and what you are terrible at. If you want to use your “Lie” skill but the DM asks you to do a “Charm” test, go ahead and tell your DM: “I would like to use my Lie skill.” Some DMs might not like this style so be sure to talk it over with them. Try to be reasonable and not ask for a skill check with an unrelated skill, like using your strength skill to sing. Though sometimes using a completely ridiculous skill can have hilarious results. Your DM may and should encourage you to explain how your skill is being used.
Unless your character suffers from delusions of heroism, you might want to ask other characters for help. NPCs are not just side quest givers, some have skills that can and should be used to your benefit. Most DMs will fill the world with helpful NPCs just waiting to be used. Town guards can help you fight off those outlaws mugging your party in the alley. Some recurring NPCs, such as a previous quest giver, can become allies. They can provide information or resources for your current adventure. Even your enemies can be of aid if you understand their objectives and motivations. After all, if the dragon attacking your town is after gold why not lead him to your rival’s larger and richer city.
Skill tests are the best moment to show how your character behaves. A barbarian and a duelist might both fight with swords but how they fight differs completely. Think about how this skill test relates to your character. A fear of heights might make a wall climb more interesting, or perhaps an old grudge fills you with fury as you strike your enemy. Personality can also be used to show intent. A scholar holding his book to his chest with sweat falling down his brow while hiding behind a shelf is cleverly not going to try to ambush the beholder. Don't forget that you are playing to have fun and “I jump backwards as I flail my sword around while yelling ‘I hate skeletons!’’ is always more entertaining for everyone at the table than: “I attack with my sword.”
With all this in mind, we can change: “I wanna climb the castle wall” to: “I want to get to the top of the castle wall so I can sneak in. I’m going to look for the best catapult expert in our unit and I want to convince him to launch me. I want to use my Charm skill and with a wink and a convincing smile I say: ‘If you get me on top of that wall, I will end the war and you can be on your way home before dawn.’”
Rodrigo Peralta is a roleplayer and a DM that likes to playtest many different rpgs. He enjoys both highly detailed complex systems and barebone casual games. He participates in local roleplaying events as both DM and player.
Picture provided by author.
Wizards of the Coast recently released Waterdeep: Dragon Heist into the wild and it is a unique take on their usual two hundred fifty plus hardback adventures. Instead of starting at level five and going to fifteen or past, this adventure is purely tier one, levels one to four (five by the end). Wizards had Kobold Press do something similar in the beginning of fifth edition with Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat, but this is the first hardback that focuses on the lowest levels and newer dungeon masters. Wizards has a habit of writing adventures for people who have played Dungeons and Dragons before, leaving a lot of advice, technique and common issues left out. Waterdeep: Dragon Heist does a good job of putting options and comments in the text that encourage good gaming habits.
1) Useable Maps
Although a printed Mike Schley map looks great on the table, a drawn map is a more common occurrence at the tables I’ve played at. Instead of the usual (albeit beautiful) Schley painted maps we have more generic Dyson Logos maps. Dyson has a simplistic, gameable style that translates well to the battle maps that most of us use for our games. Also, these maps are smaller and lend themselves to be used over and over; in fact the book leads the new dungeon master to this conclusion.
There are often things written in adventures directed to entertain the dungeon master while reading that the players will never see. This book takes that a step further and gives you four ten step paths reusing the same ten maps as different locations each time. Again, this promotes good dungeon master habits (reuse, repurpose, and steal) in new dungeon masters and keeps the dungeon master entertained on subsequent playthroughs of the hardback. Getting your fifty dollars out of a product has never been this fun. A dungeon master can run this for the same group and only the first two chapter are the same, and even those will likely play out different as the second is very free form and weather effects will wreak havoc on the players’ plans.
3) Leads Dungeon Masters In the Right Direction When Things Go Wrong
It’s said that no plan survives contact with the enemy, this is true in Dungeons and Dragons as well. When four minds go up against one, those four players will always think of things the dungeon master has forgotten. For example, when a non player character is mentioned they let the dungeon master know that if that NPC is dead or otherwise removed from play they can just be substituted with a generic version of them. There are also many ideas of how to handle the situation when those players go sideways or get stuck in the story.
4) Sandbox Done Right
Starting at around level two, the players are given the option to do what they want. New and even seasoned players can get analyzation paralyzation when faced with more than three choices. When the dungeon master looks at you and asks, “What do you want to do?” a player will likely freeze up. In the sandbox chapter of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, they don’t just dump you into a list of locations hundreds of miles apart (looking at you Storm King’s Thunder), but instead give you ideas of what the players can do and of things that can happen during this time.
5) Using Non Standard Rules
Waterdeep: Dragon Heist could have stuck to the core rules and not made any changes to them, but instead Wizards again chooses to lead a new dungeon master into a good routine by suggesting that some things may not work the normal way. Using variant rules like “Skills with Different Abilities,” taking disadvantage to give another player advantage, or the addition of constant weather effects during each season, Wizards encourages a new dungeon master to look beyond the rules for options as they come up.
6) Obvious Money Sinks
In each Dungeons & Dragons hardback adventure there is always an incredible influx of gold that the characters receive. Waterdeep: Dragon Heist expands upon some of the rules in the Dungeon Masters Guide for spending gold. Running a business is covered in the Dungeon Masters Guide, but setting one up isn’t. Waterdeep: Dragon Heist not only lets the dungeon master know how much gold is needed to repair and run the business, but also who players will need to talk to and what happens if players eschew the guilds. There are prices for some scrolls as well if the players wish to purchase them, I don’t remember seeing these anywhere else and will use them as a base when pricing scrolls in the future.
In most Dungeons and Dragons official material there is a lack of advice for someone just starting to run games. As far as direct advice, there still is, but if you take a look at the habits Wizards is trying to develop in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist there is some great insights. While I’d rather see a section of advice, this is heading in a good direction. In fact, I think Wizards of the Coast finally out did the Starter Set adventure (Lost Mine of Phandelver) in ease of entry for a new gaming group. This would be my new recommendation for a dungeon master just starting if the price of the required books and dice wasn't so high.
Richard Fraser has been roleplaying since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and started with the red box in the eighties. He currently prefers to DM fifth edition D&D, though reads a lot of OSR and PbtA. He currently has podcast, Cockatrice Nuggets and maintains a blog, both of which can be found at www.slackernerds.com.
Image source: 2018 Wizards of the Coast
The dungeon master has the power to make or break a game. Good dungeon masters can transport you to a land of fantasy, and make even the clunkiest of game mechanics fun and engaging. Bad dungeon masters, on the other hand, can take what looks like a great game on paper and make it into the kind of experience that will drive you to drink.
If you have yet to be visited by any of the dungeon masters on this list, then beware! For in your future you may yet have to contend with…
1) The Naked Emperor
Every dungeon master was once new. There was a time when you didn’t know where the monster stats were, when you bungled a plot twist, or when you messed up rules calls more often than you got them right. But most dungeon masters learn from these mistakes, re-read the text, and eventually find their groove.
Not the Naked Emperor.
No, for you see, the Emperor has no need of such plebeian things like books or lore with which to make their decisions. Clothed in the invisible garments of their own brilliance, it’s uncommon for the Emperor to even know the mechanics of the game they’re running beyond the very basics. Convinced that the stories they have to tell transcend such things, questions about damage, resistances, or even class features are met with a dismissive wave of the hand.
In short, the Naked Emperor is the know-nothing DM who has no interest in getting into the mechanics of how the game runs, because that isn’t their concern. They rarely keep players for long, and when those players find other groups it can take some time to forget the behavior they learned in the Emperor’s Court.
2) The Author
In an ideal game setting, the dungeon master runs the non-player characters, the plot, and the world physics. The players are in control of their characters, and the actions those characters take. The dungeon master sets up the situation, the players react to it, and collaboratively they tell a story.
Not at the Author’s table.
The Author sees themselves more as a director of all the action taking place at the table. While the players might be the ones behind the characters, they’re treated more like actors on a set. They can improvise, and put their own spin on things, but the Author insists on certain paths being taken, and certain actions not being taken. Their games are characterized by problems with one-and-only-one solution, by constant interruptions explaining to players why their current actions will not work, and at times literal divine intervention pointing an arrow down a specific path.
No matter how beautiful the setting, how flowery the words, or how attentive to mechanical detail an author is, their games tend to feel more like a police state where you are attempting to guess the dungeon master’s desires rather than playing. Because without freedom, you’re not playing a game… you’re just part of a play where only one of you has the script, and he won’t share it with everyone else.
3) The Schoolmaster
A good gaming group has its share of messing around, in-jokes, and silliness. After all, you’re getting together around a table with your friends pretending to be elves, dwarves, wizards, and assassins… it’s kind of a silly thing to be doing, and taking yourself too seriously can backfire.
No one seems to have told the Schoolmaster this, though.
The Schoolmaster has underlying rules to how a game table should be managed. Players should be attentive, listening to all of the information they relate before taking the baton back so they can begin roleplaying again. The Schoolmaster expects you to listen when they talk, and to follow their lead. In short, they treat their players more like children who need to be corralled, and less like adults who are here to have fun together.
When the dungeon master tries to get everyone’s attention, it’s a good idea to listen. But when they start threatening to give players detention, and lecturing instead of being part of the game, it’s time to move on to a table run by someone who isn’t possessed by the spirit of Ichabod Crane.
4) The Adversary
RPGs are full of uphill battles, ambushes, tense negotiations, and hard-fought skirmishes. These are the challenges the characters have to overcome in order to reach their goal, and to bring the story to its completion. And while no dungeon master wants to make it easy on the players, most of them don’t want to kill the party.
The Adversary does.
For the Adversary, the story is a secondary concern. The game has a binary outcome, and for them to win, the party has to die. Adversaries tend to have enemies that are noticeably outside the party’s weight class, but they are also the first to cry foul if a tactic or power proves particularly successful against their villains. They will out-and-out strip abilities from player characters, stating that they no longer work, or switch tactics entirely to ensure that strategy is nullified completely. Worst of all, though, Adversaries have no empathy for the players’ goals. They may pay lip service to the idea that you’re all here to tell a story, but the Adversary won’t consider the game a victory if they haven’t made the players bleed for every inch of ground they cover.
Adversaries breed mistrust, but even worse, they can lead to players grabbing every advantage they can possibly find. This often leads to dungeon masters who aren’t adversarial thinking these players are just power-gaming munchkins, more concerned with bonuses than with the story. Adversaries leave scars and habits that can be hard to unlearn.
5) The Punisher
A good dungeon master lets the laws of cause and effect play out in the world. They arbitrate things neutrally, and allow complications and solutions to arise naturally from the actions of the player characters. In short, their actions have consequences, but those consequences fall into the “what comes up must come down” school of mechanics.
This is not the case for the Punisher.
For the Punisher, any act that fails is an excuse to inflict upon that character an Old Testament level of pain or humiliation. A Punisher’s critical fumble deck is well-thumbed and dog-eared from use, and they’ve never once asked players if they even wanted to use that optional mechanic. They simply take it as a given. The Punisher takes glee in natural 1’s, and may even attach consequences to regular failed rolls, as well. Broken weapons, injuring yourself, feedback from spells that failed to penetrate an enemy’s defenses, and even slipping on random banana peels and falling prone in the middle of a fight are all commonplace for the Punisher’s games. Some Punishers play it straight, giving the same drawbacks to the monsters, but they fail to see that a monster breaking its weapon has a much smaller impact overall than a PC who has lost their primary weapon in the middle of a dungeon.
Punishers tend to suck the fun out of a game, particularly if the table is on a good run of bad luck. Adding insult to injury may be done in the name of “realism,” but the result is more often a game that feels like it actively wants you to stop playing.
There are certain challenges we all have to face in life as gamers. Remember that if you’re ever faced with one of these dread DMs, remember that if you survive you get XP… and you’ll learn to recognize the signs the next time you see one of these game masters across a table.
For more from Neal Litherland, check out his Gamers archive along with his blog Improved Initiative!
Picture Reference: https://dungeondutchess.com/tag/gm/
“Any axe is a good axe.” Ah, Dwarves. Every races has a certain stigma behind them in small human towns. For the most part, adventurers seem to be the exception to this. Although not every Elf is for equal rights, and not every Halfling is brooding and in (really adorable) plate armor. Of course it's worth exploring these wonderful little worlds of stereotypes because often they're based on a shred of truth. Or in other cases, a rather large pile of truth.
A personal favorite of mine, Elves are the pointy eared, bow-shooting, magic-casting tree folk with an unnatural beauty and a thoughtful nature. Beware, because behind that calm and collected nature sits a xenophobe true and true. Who hasn’t wanted to spew racial slurs at everything under the sun every now and then?
Humans? Inferior. Dwarves? Idiots. Halflings? Won’t amount to anything. Elves are the gods’ masterpiece and no one can take that away from them. When you start peppering everyone on the field in a volley of well aimed arrows, the party may reconsider using you as gnoll bait.
Drunken brawling is a fun hobby, and the only hobby that Dwarves probably made into an art. If you can’t drink yourself under the table as a Dwarf, you just aren’t living to their full potential. Not to mention your average Dwarf almost likes their liquor as much as they like their friends, with their Lawful Good tendencies and all.
You’ll be the envy of the party, as being proficient in smith's tools lets you maintain and create armour and weapons for the party. But don’t let those pesky Elves get word of your craftsmanship, otherwise they’ll be begging for some of your work.
Wisecracking and friendly sometimes Gnomes are a little underrated, but when you mix magic and tinkering the results are usually rather splendid. Albeit being so small may have its disadvantages, it usually means you’re just that much harder to hit with a battleaxe.
When the going gets tough, Gnomes have a tendency to make the going softer, between a loveable nature and invaluable skills Gnomes are quite the asset to any adventuring group, mostly due to their friendly natures and the neat little gadgets and do dads. Just don’t let them hear you demean their work, or it may spark quite the little fury.
Fury. Gods. Good and evil. These are all the truths that a Half-orc faces in their lives. They all feel the pull of the god that calls to their very blood. All know the anger that makes their heart beat and their blood boil. The very fact that they are seen as being born of evil causes many to end up there.
Their tenacity, both of body and mind are what marks Half-orcs. They aren’t made of stone. They’re made of bone, and when they pull yours from your body, you’ll know what it means to be a Half-orc. Bunch of badasses.
Of course, real world stereotypes aren’t fun, but games are games, right?
Jarod Lalonde is a young roleplayer 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 Cthulhu whispering to him in the small hours of the night, or just persistent flashbacks to the Far Realm.
Picture Reference: https://www.pinterest.ie/pin/299207968980723733/
Since their introduction in the Van Richten's Guide, Ravenloft has gone to great lengths to make fiends diabolical again. There are no legions of hellspawn, no hells or heavens to travel to, no blood war cutting down thousands of faceless fiends an hour, cannon fodder for a multiversal conflict. Fiends in Ravenloft are rare, each a unique individual character, usually surrounded by a web of intrigue best suited for a high level party.
However, this is still a fantasy setting, and making fiends rare and unique has made them less accessible for situations when the plot calls for it. Friendly contact with an evil outsider is a requirement to get into the Blackguard prestige class, and Pathfinder gave us many more classes and archetypes that assume these monsters are everywhere. If your plot calls for a pact with darkness but fiends are scarce, here are some creative ways to get the job done.
1) The Ebonbane
Despite being trapped with in a magical crystal coffin in a very remote location, the Ebonbane's legend has spread among those seeking shortcuts to power. Those who come to bargain with him are frequently lulled by his imprisonment, thinking themselves in control as they slice their palms and place a bloody handprint on enchanted crystal. The truth is, they will never leave Shadowborn Manor unless he owns them, body and soul.
What he offers: Black Blade magus archetype, enchanted magic swords.
What he asks: the Ebonbane compels his agents to work against the Knights of the Shadows.
They find themselves hating anyone wearing the insignia or cloak of the Circle. Over time, this hatred grows to overshadow any prior ambition that caused them to strike their original bargain.
The Bound Slumber spell cast on Baltoi doesn't prevent her from dreaming. She has one of the few perpetual dream spheres in the Nightmare Lands, and while the Nightmare Court has tried to corral her influence by sequestering that sphere in a Mist Oubliette, she has corrupted some of their ennui. Born of nightmares and tainted with demonic essence, these vile creatures bring her dreamers to tempt and corrupt.
What she asks: Baltoi demands that each of these diabolists perform a rite that grants her domain powers, or weakens the spells that bind her. She doesn't care what they do after that.
What she offers: Many don't survive performing the rites she demands. Those that do gain access to the full spectrum of summoning from the lower planes and undergo two stages of transposition with a fiend of the appropriate alignment.
3) Tsvtieyft Schattendertodd
Bearing a name that means roughly “Second Shadow of Death,” this tenebris elevates the depraved and disturbed into legendary serial killers, its “Lustmorde.” The legends of its proteges always mention the city of Morfenzi, so those who would seek it out know to look for it there. If your campaign calls for a Jack the Ripper or Sweeney Todd, it's easy enough to say they traveled through Morfenzi at one point, and followed the call of darkness underground before journeying on.
What it offers: The Lustmorde are not usually spellcasters, so the gifts of the Second Shadow are those befitting a cinematic serial killer: mild damage resistance or natural armor, even bonus feats that like Diehard are perfect for a killer who just keeps coming.
What it asks: The master of the Lustmorde demands not just a body count, but murder as art. It drives its proteges to take risks for more kills even as it protects them.
Of course, all three of these fiends are powerful enough that they might grant any boon the plot calls for, and ambitious or desperate enough to assist anyone for any reason. While you can always have your would-be diabolist stumble across The Black Duke or Elsepeth, it's nice to know some fiends that are exactly as far reaching as you need them to be.
Leyshon Campbell has been playing and writing for Ravenloft for over twenty years, from the Kargatane's Book of S series, playtesting D&D 3E in a Ravenloft campaign, to the ill-fated Masque of the Jade Horror. He married his wife on Friday the 13th after proposing to her on Halloween. By tradition, the first story read at birth to each of their three children was The Barker’s Tour, from Ravenloft’s “Carnival” supplement. He is currently running the “Queen of Orphans” Ravenloft campaign.
Picture Reference: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/17529/Van-Richtens-Guide-to-Fiends-2e?it=1
If you are familiar with my show, The Dragon’s Horde, then you will also be familiar with the concept of “the sleepy dragon list.” For those of you not in The Horde, the sleepy dragon list is a bit of an albatross hanging from my dungeon mastering neck. In brief, it is a shorthand list of ideas that I have for items, adventures, NPCs, and such. Items on the list include things like “He thinks he is a werewolf. He is not” or “weird (sexy?) key.” Then there is the infamous “sleepy dragon.” It has dwelt within the list for nigh 4 years now, and I have yet to remember what the heck I wanted to do concerning a sleepy dragon. Despite this, I have continued to expand my sleepy dragon list with tons of narrative seeds to get a story on track. One of the most frequent questions we get on the show is from new DMs asking how to get things started. To this I say, ask no more, friends; Pendragon has 7 adventure introductions to get the creative juices flowing!
1) The Herd
In the city of Sherrack there is a small village nestled within a grassy basin. Here, traders and farm hands amble about their day selling, harvesting, and discussing the recent goings-on over at Gumby’s farm. As of late, the resident octogenarian and shepherd has had quite the ordeal keeping his flock alive. Every day or two several of his flock go mysteriously missing; stranger yet, more sheep emerge from the woods to to fill their place the following day. Little do Gumby’s neighbors know, that he had recently developed an acute fear of his impending mortality and has turned experimenting on his flock to find the secrets of immortality. And little does Gumby know that the Divine have their eye on him and have sent a couple watchdogs his way in the form of sheep whose wool cannot be sheared.
2) Maiden Voyage
The Briny Steed had seen much better days on the sea. Now it rests patiently in harbor, waiting for its next (and probably final) voyage. Through bribery, philandering, and “oh, come on’s” the wannabe captain, Earl Stoutheart has managed to convince the party to commandeer the vessel and sail it across the Scattered Sea. The gang lies in the belly of the ship, waiting for nightfall, but when the time arrives, they emerge to a sight most strange. The ship has already departed on its own accord and seems to be in command of its own heading. It is a ship’s turn to do some commandeering for a change, and the party is along for the ride of a now sentient maritime vessel.
3) Alcohol Poisoning
You haven’t heard of the Drinking Hat?! Why, it’s the finest saloon for miles around. Well, it used to be anyway. Built in the husk of an abandoned grain silo, the proprietors of the bar have converted it into a massive, multi tiered drinking house. Tubes snake their way from the mountain of barrels above down to the respective patron, but I wouldn’t go there if I were you. Recently, a group of thieves guilders met an unfortunate end after having their drinks. They could have chosen any number of barrels to sip from, but the poor sods must have gotten one that had been tampered with. Some say it was just bad luck, but I say differently. I say they were assassinated. On my honor as guild master Roan, those responsible for the death of my men will pay with more than just coins.
The bardic hall in Brint is known nationwide for being the home to more than its fair share of celebrities. The flying Charnelli twins. Finnigan the wondrous. Heck, even Mertick and his performing bear Bathsalts have stopped by on occasion. No one expected a show stopper from Cleopatra though, but a show stopper it was. Everyone assumed she would live and die as a modest tailor until she took the stage to sing. The issue is, no one will ever know how the show actually went, because no one ever left. The morning after her performance, the the owner of the hall found the entire crowd dead in their seats! She has since been arrested for murder, but she says she is innocent and they simply dropped dead in the middle of her act. Cleopatra’s head is on the chopping block, and your party may be the only ones who can prove her innocence.
Let it never be said of Matilda that she was anything but a saint. Known for her meek generosity, Matilda enlists the help of the party to help her with a job a little outside the capabilities of a sweet aged woman. The thing is, locals are tired of the stagnant water of the swamp nearby, and they plan on draining it completely. This is all fine and good for most people, but not ‘ol Matilda. She informs the party that she left a large cache of treasure in a lockbox somewhere within the belly of the marsh. Should they find it, she would be more than happy to give them a cut of the booty. The party drudges around in the murky waters, following Matildas instructions closely, but when they arrive, not only do they find treasure but also a corpse clutching the lockbox. Upon further investigation, it appears that the body is wearing a locket with a picture of Matilda inside. Upon further further investigation, the party hears a group of locals approaching. Upon further further further investigation, the party is discovered by the locals (Matilda included) ripping the lockbox from the arms of a dead man. “That’s Harold!” Matilda shrieks, “And that is my lockbox!” Turns out Harold had mysteriously disappeared a year ago, taking both his and his wife’s savings with him. Matilda weeps in the arms of the closest friendly local, but what’s that? Did she just glance over and smirk?
6) The Call Of Pazuzu
(I incorporate something similar to the following in each of my campaigns. This cult is kind of like my signature; I would love to know if this inspired an adventure of your own). Your party is headed off for a new adventure in unfamiliar territory. About a day from their destination, a group of naked elves and humans approaches with open arms. They inform the party that they are thrilled to see new faces and are about to, in short, start a celebration. Whether they join the naked folk or not, the party has to pass by the strangers’ camp which has a massive, half finished totem looming overhead. The nudists are busily gathering scrap wood to finish the totem, and they gleefully sing, dance, and try to rope the group into helping. Despite their cordial, unsuspecting nature, these individuals have been waiting a year for that particular night to summon their favorite pestilence demi-god, Pazuzu! An otherwise silver moon slowly begins to shift to a blood red crimson; then, with the totem complete, Pazuzu in all of her pestilent glory animates the statue and chooses it as her personal avatar. Whoops.
7) The Bane Of My Existence
The role of an effective storyteller can be a daunting task, especially since most of the work of a Dungeon Master happens in real time, but having good narrative seeds chock full of possible hooks and intrigue can make the job that much easier. Nothing feels worse than getting to the table and not feeling like you have enough content to work with; veteran and beginner DMs alike know this. Hopefully you can find ways to plant these seeds if you find yourself in a pinch, and maybe you can start crafting a Sleepy Dragon list of your own! A brief aside, if you come up with a cool answer to the Sleepy Dragon conundrum, feel free to tell me about it at TheDragonsHordeCast@gmail.com so we can feature it on the podcast!
Andrew Pendragon is a veteran role player, Dungeon Master, and story teller. His work can be seen featured on outlets like the Chilling Tales for Dark Nights podcast and Youtube channel BlackEyedBlonde, but he takes the most pride in his High Level Games affiliate podcast The Dragon’s Horde where he, alongside his co host, answers listener submitted roleplay questions and weaves them into a false-actual-play adventure!
Picture Reference: https://www.deviantart.com/legend13/art/Sleepy-Dragon-s-Teddy-275967993
When I started gaming, I loved to read the early Dragon anthologies for their insight into the early game. One of my favorite anecdotes was about a Lake Geneva player who took “wall" as a language, and proceeded to interrogate dungeon walls as to what was behind them. His creativity was only matched by the DM, who had all the walls reply in drunken slurs that they had no idea because they were all “plastered.”
Apart from comic relief, this scenario raises the question of the role languages might play in various games. The Ravenloft setting dispensed with the simplicity of a “Common" tongue found in other settings because it clashed with the insular, xenophobic nature of the setting. This has forced players to strongly consider their choices for what many other settings consider an afterthought. To make sure you are covering all you bases, consider the 4 S’s.
1) Secret Societies
Like Druidic in previous editions, knowledge of a particular language is extremely useful for identifying who is part of your secret club. Hidden messages become much more secure, as the eccentricities of a language are far more confusing than any code. Even when translated by magic, cryptic jargon or slang still remains, such as with Navajo code talking. This also adds to the flavor of the secret society, as the language in question is tied to pragmatic or philosophical roots of the group. Vampyrs of Falkovnia might use Wardin (the language of their leader’s lost world) as a way to express their ambitions, and a prospective Knight of the Shadows might be expected to learn Nidalan before the annual trip to the The Shadowlands.
It was suggested in the Ravenloft Dungeon Master’s Guide that Draconic--the language of arcane spellcasting--was one possible bridge between the diverse patchwork of peoples scattered throughout the Mists. An example of this was given in Van Richten's Arsenal, when Celebrant Agatha Clairmont and Gennifer Weathermay-Foxgrove found it the only common language they could write letters in. In academic circles, knowledge of Draconic or other dead languages might be a significant status symbol. After all, Mordentish may be the language of scholars across the Core, but in Mordent it’s the language of everyone, from the dean to the drunkards. Dead languages are a much better reference than living ones when you are trying to sort out the ones who had quality schooling.
Summoning spells get short shrift in Ravenloft due to the restrictions on summoning extraplanar creatures, but there are ways around these restrictions. The simplest is the Entities from the Id feat from the RLDMG, which allows the full summoning list to anyone who has failed a Madness check. This has been expanded on for Pathfinder to allow for the Summoner core class using madness in a character backstory. However you choose to specialize in summoning, many summoned creatures need direction in their own language to do anything other than attack, so language slots add a lot to their versatility.
Sometimes the language slot is the best place for a language-like skill that doesn't fit elsewhere. Vistani ‘tralaks’ or trail signs don't have a ‘spoken’ form, but this is a language available to PC’s, unlike Paaterna. Like gnomes speaking to burrowing mammals, there might be a character with a supernatural ability to understand the speech of the undead, the shared chorus of elementals, or some ancient language from a past life.
I thought about that guy who talked to walls when a player unfamiliar with Ravenloft put drow sign language in their list of languages. Drow are barely even legends in Ravenloft, so this was perhaps the least useful language choice possible. However, it inspired me to think about the role of sign language in the Land of Mists, and I created an esoteric sign language for this character, one used by La Serrure et Cle due to problems speaking while masked (and to further hide deformities that affected speech). Years later, “Surreran Sign" continues to be an interesting feature of my games. Consider this challenge next time a player proposes a rare or unorthodox language. There could be a great story there, and at the end of the day, great stories are what roleplaying games are all about.
Leyshon Campbell has been playing and writing for Ravenloft for over twenty years, from the Kargatane's Book of S series, playtesting D&D 3E in a Ravenloft campaign, to the ill-fated Masque of the Jade Horror. He married his wife on Friday the 13th after proposing to her on Halloween. By tradition, the first story read at birth to each of their three children was The Barker’s Tour, from Ravenloft’s “Carnival” supplement. He is currently running the “Queen of Orphans” Ravenloft campaign on Discord.
Picture Reference: http://termcoord.eu/2016/04/j-r-r-tolkiens-guide-to-inventing-a-fantasy-language/
On the surface, pretending to be someone else for four hours a week may not seem like an activity that you could participate in that would help you connect with yourself better. However, the similarities and differences between character and player can help you define yourself. I have had a lot of issues over the years with finding myself. With finding a way to state who I am clearly. D&D provided a way for me to explore who I am.
I started playing D&D when I was six years old. My father (a grognard) introduced me to the game with second edition intermingled with AD&D. At that age, it was really just closer to make believe. Just pretend. It also means that I’m probably the only modern D&D player I know who knows what the hell a THAC0 is. I played with my dad for another two or three years before things started to get hard in my family.
The oil crisis hit, and my dad was working up north at the time. He got laid off. My family used to sit pretty comfortably, but before long, we had to sell the house and move into a trailer, where we still live. My dad ended up depressed and he put on more weight. An issue he had been struggling with for a long time at this point. I’m talking since he was ten. I remembered at this point how happy my dad was when we were playing that game, and I brought it up again, about two years after we had moved. We went to the warehouse within the week and rounded up the old books.
At this point, the game represented a world where I had power. Where I had control over something; felt like I was progressing in some way. It was around this time in my life where I was really starting to struggle academically. I had to retake my fifth grade math course right before we moved simply because I didn’t do any of the work. I wasn’t very social either.
My sixth grade year was when I started to show promise with something - writing. I had such a flare for making up worlds and scenarios. Looking back, I know the reason was my experience with the fantastical worlds of D&D. However at the time it was chalked up to an active imagination and the fact that I read a lot, and quickly. This, quite obviously, is still a hobby of mine to this day. Another thing that sparked around the time of this reintroduction of the game into my life was my newfound love for medieval history and historical martial arts.
The year afterward, I started to play with people other than just my father. His depression was starting to get a little bit better because it had been diagnosed and he was on medication for it. He was still working minor jobs while my mother continued working two jobs. I was playing with two close friends of mine in particular, who I’ll call E and A. E was a little bit of a pain in the ass and can be a rules lawyer sometimes, but his unique characters usually means he’s got something to add to the group. A was twice as shy as I was, but he was incredibly creative. His characters were killer. My father usually DM’d for us when he had the time.
Academically I started to flourish. I saw my work as a way to increase my stats and gain new proficiencies. My life was pretty much defined by games and pretend. I was still writing and rocking a 90% or more in my english classes. However something wasn’t quite right during all this time. It all felt off. I felt these characters I was playing were more fleshed out than I was. More real than me. I had made them, yet they had a hundred things more going for them than me. As absurd as it sounds, I got jealous of my characters and for awhile I didn’t want to touch the game.
This marks a bit of a dry spell when it comes to gaming in my life and bit of a very unique time developmentally for me. I started looking around myself and seeing adventure in a different light. Adventure wasn’t just something that could happen for and shape my characters, it could happen for me and change me. I became outgoing. I wanted to do and try as much as I could, and I still do to this day. I like to refer to this point in my life as “The Great Exploration” and I feel that it is an integral part of every person development.
It took awhile of me messing around but I started to settle again close to the begining of highschool. Not that I wasn’t still ready to have fun, but I looked at myself and knew that I was in fact a character, and I had to develop my skills.
It was at the beginning of this year where I started to fall in love with D&D all over again, and I created a character I still play to this day with my dad - Aramil “Lupus” Lupintine. Lupus was just supposed to be a kinda strong one shot character. He started at level 5 with a little bit of backstory and a few magic items. But above all he had personality in spades. He was charming, dashing, and clever and he knew it. This man exuded confidence and made sure everyone was aware of this. As I played Lupus, I noticed that I felt more at home pretending to be him than actually being myself. Instead of scaring me off, I took this into consideration and started to try and act more like him. (At least his better qualities, I didn’t want to become a douchebag and a show off.)
It’s crucial to note that this was a character only I and my dad played. It was a one on one campaign. My father told me he was seeing Lupus in me more and more and that it’s not really a bad thing. It’s also worth noting that this was around the time I started writing for this site. My passion for the game at this point was unparalleled. I can still find exact pages in the 5e books without even having to check because of how much time I spent pouring over those books for me and my friends.
I’m a completely different person now in my life. I’ve seen a lot of change in a very short period of time, some good, some bad. But a lot of the better stuff was thanks to D&D and it allowing me to explore myself in a unique, safe way.
To this day, every now and then, when things get tough I look myself in the mirror and ask, what would Lupus do?
The answer is more often than not, “insult someone in a position of power, walk away scott free and take a piss in the shrubbery on the way out.” However when that isn’t an option, the answer is “just keep fighting.” Which is what I think we should all take out of our D&D characters. When faced with insurmountable odds, our adventurers don’t sit back and say “Well… shit.” They spit in the face of adversity, stomp on its foot and then beat the crap out of it while it’s still reeling. Sometimes you need to push through in the way best for you. That’s why there’s different classes, because we all have different plans for how to win. That’s the story of every D&D character, and that’s the story of everyone who is trying to make a place for themselves in this world.
Jarod Lalonde is a young roleplayer 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 Cthulhu whispering to him in the small hours of the night, or just persistent flashbacks to the Far Realm.
Picture Reference: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/303993043583155351/
Hey, Jim here! Before Frankie gets started, I wanted to remind you that High Level Games is bringing you game content and commentary absolutely free, as well as providing a home and launching point for a slew of great creators! If you want to support our endeavors, we'd love it if you stopped by our Patreon to show your support. Of course, if you'd like a little something for your hard earned money, you could always pick up one of our fine game products as well.
It’s no secret that adventurers stick out like a sore thumb in the Core. Heavy armor and ostentatious magic draw all manner of unwanted attention, and the wisest heroes learn quickly to travel incognito if they want to avoid overt hostility from the worst of the abominations that stalk the realms of men.
Early in our correspondence, I gave you some advice on how a spellcaster might ply their trade without arousing too much suspicion. I thought we might revisit a similar topic and discuss those of a more surreptitious bent.
Rogues (better known by their more honest sobriquet: thieves) are a staple of the adventuring party. Mundane skills of legerdemain, acrobatics, and ambush attacks make them indispensable to the travelling hero, but this sort of champion has a tendency to run afoul of the law, and with the exception of the ever-rare paladin, they top the Darklords Most Wanted lists in most domains. Fortunately, there are a number of guises the enterprising footpad can operate under if they want to avoid the watchful eye of the Core’s dark masters. Or just the local constabulary.
1) The Butler
Great warriors often travel with a retinue. Fortunately, when faced with a wrathful cavalier, very few intelligent monsters will turn their back on the most visible threat to attack the help. Wealthy merchants, priests, diplomats: really, anyone with money can have a valet with them without arousing suspicion. In matters of espionage, the butler can often go places, especially in more medieval settings, where a notable hero might be noticed.
Pulling off the role of the butler requires a bit of skill as a valet. Knowledge of how to prepare a meal, how to ready a horse or suit of armor, and how to craft or repair articles of clothing go a long way to selling the ruse, in addition to ingratiating you with your group, since these amenities can be welcoming comforts on the road. The best valets also double as barbers, of course, keeping their lords’ hair and faces immaculately trimmed and shaved. This provides a useful excuse for carrying a straight razor. Letter openers and small tack hammers can also be included without disrupting the image.
2) The Fur Trapper
The quests of adventurers can sometimes take them far into the wilderness, and many groups take to hiring guides familiar with the lands they’re traversing. If your group isn’t fortunate enough to have such a guide, you might make your own fortune by disguising yourself as one. Providing you speak the local language, you may find rugged ‘working poor’ types more amenable to discussing current events with a fellow peasant.
Knowledge in how to make, set, and disarm traps is one of the most quintessential thief skills, so it’s something you probably won’t have to go out of your way to learn. The profession gives you a reasonable excuse to carry a small selection of snares, wires, and jaw traps wherever you go as well as tools with which to work on them, and despite the name a skinning knife is still perfectly capable of slitting a throat when required. Of course, the large, shaggy furs that are common with these frontiersfolk are wonderfully useful for hiding any tools or items you wouldn’t want local law enforcement to find.
3) The Clown
What better way to justify your acrobatics than by being an actual acrobat? The Skurra have long been aware that performers of all types are often allowed to get much closer to targets than a wandering sell-sword might be, and given more leeway in breaking social mores. While denizens of the more buttoned-up domains like Lamordia or Mordent may give such a performer the cold shoulder, many places see a street performer as a welcome break from their daily monotony, and may be more forthcoming with information (or just easy access to their coinpurses).
Skill at performance is a must for this role, requiring the thief not only be a skilled gymnast, but that she have the ability to captivate an audience as well. Mimes, jugglers, or prestidigitators can help distract guards or crowds while their parties engage in clandestine activities, and the trappings of the clown can include a number of items that can be turned to lethal purpose, including juggling pins or knives, as well as potions or smokepowders for more dramatic effects. Oversized ruffs, shoes, and prosthetics can offer an easy place to hide smuggled goods, or as a decoy to keep eagle-eyed guards from noticing more cleverly concealed items.
4) The Bureaucrat
Kingdoms aren’t built on swords and soldiers. Real kingdoms are built on paperwork. A thief who understands the machinations of seal and signet can be a much more dangerous threat than one who works with daggers and lockpicks. Diplomats, tax collectors, and lawyers can gain access to storerooms, prisons, and state halls with ease, and a balding, ink-stained clerical worker is rarely considered a threat by the fiends adventurers make a business of confronting.
Pulling off this role requires either a wealth of knowledge in the field being infiltrated, or a phenomenal ability to bluff. Knowledge of local and international laws helps, as does being a dab hand at forgery. While the accoutrements of this disguise aren’t as useful for concealing deadly implements, wealthy or important bureaucrats can easily justify hiring professional muscle (read: the rest of the party) to keep them safe, cloaking the entire heroic venture in a veneer of legitimacy.
Every domain is accepting of at least some form of medical professional, with the more developed nations boasting a wide variety of physicians, alienists, and naturalists. The biggest benefit of adventuring as such an intellectual is the status it affords: the wealthy and the educated are often more open with someone they view as a social peer. The curiosity of these professions serves as a plausible excuse for the nosiness of the typical adventurer, and many people who balk at the idea of turning to barbarians with swords to address their needs are more willing to talk to someone they see as being able to solve their problems with reason and science.
Investigative adventurers may love this role: it encourages them to carry a number of inspector's tools, such as magnifying lenses, sample vials, and chemistry kits. The surgical tools that many medical professionals keep on their person make efficient (and at times extremely gruesome) weapons, but also provide a lucrative, if visceral, source of income, since many monster body parts can fetch a high value from the arcane crowd.
At the end of the day
Any thief is better than no thief at all. Although they don't have the martial prowess of the fighter or the eldritch knowledge of the mage, their utilitarian skillset is too valuable for any party to be without.
Still, whether you're looking to duck the wrath of Azalin Rex or just Constable Bob, a little subtlety never hurts.
Good luck, and happy hunting.
Frankie Drakeson, Lord Mayor of Carinford-Halldon
Frankie Drakeson is a retired rifleman and the current mayor of Carinford-Halldon in Mordent. He is married to Gwendolyn Drakeson, the granddaughter of Nathan Timothy.
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 Quoth the Raven. His mad scribblings can frequently be found in anthologies like Fitting In or Selfies from the End of the World, by Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearnswriter, or listen to Don, Jon, & Dragons, his podcast.
Picture Reference: https://www.deviantart.com/gandolf67/art/Rogues-Den-375845519
There has been something of a surge in tabletop RPGs over the past few years, and while a lot of systems have grown their player base, no one has gotten as big as DND 5th Edition. Driven by the popularity of shows like Critical Role, it isn't much of an exaggeration to say that this edition of DND has finally clawed the Wizards of The Coast property back onto the lofty perch it was knocked off of when they released the previous edition.
Since I like to check out popular games, I've played my share of DND 5E. I've also created content for it, which has necessitated going more than wrist-deep into the mechanics that make it work. As a gaming system, 5E is perfectly functional. It's fast-paced, easy to learn, and you can tinker with it relatively easily. With that said, though, there are certain aspects of it that I (as a player, an occasional DM, and a designer) absolutely hate.
And, as always, one player's flaw is another player's feature. So keep that in mind as you go through my list.
1) The Narrowing of Class Features
When I sit down with an RPG, one of the things that I enjoy is outright ignoring the stereotypes of a given class, and how they use their powers. Unfortunately, though, 5E has narrowed the functionality of class features to the point that character concepts which were simple to create in previous editions are outright impossible to make now.
I’ll give you an example. A barbarian's Rage now has the caveat that you have to either attack a foe or take damage pretty much every round in order to keep your Rage going. This reduces Rage to nothing but a combat-focused ability, taking away any other potential uses for the power. You can't use your enhanced strength to pick up fallen comrades as you flee from battle, for example, and you can't use it to give you an extra boost while climbing a mountain side. You can't use it to outrun people chasing you across the rooftops, and unless you're actively being hurt you couldn't even use it for something like rescuing NPCs from a burning building. Even winning an arm wrestling contest is out, by the rules as they're written.
This single-purpose mentality extends to a lot of classes, and it restricts play style unnecessarily. Rogues can only sneak attack with finesse weapons? Paladins can only use their smite on melee attacks? Was a paladin with a longbow whose hand is guided by the divine too game breaking?
And so on, and so forth.
The desire to be less flexible in terms of how abilities work, and thus to restrict character concepts, is one thing that turns me off hard about this edition.
2) Alignment Is More Pointless Than Ever Before
Nothing starts arguments faster than talking about alignment in tabletop RPGs, but at least back in the 3.0 and 3.5 edition of the game alignment had some kind of purpose. Certain spells might affect you differently based on your alignment, you had to be of a certain alignment to be part of certain classes, and there were weapons that wouldn't work for you if your alignment didn't match theirs. It wasn't the most important feature of your character most of the time, but it would have mechanical repercussions in the game.
I've played through a dozen levels in various 5E games so far, and alignment has never once come up. I haven't seen it mentioned in any spells I've looked at, nor in the descriptions of any magic items. There are suggestions in the class descriptions, but nothing happens to you if your paladin, monk, or cleric's alignment shifts away from what it was at the start. It doesn't restrict which classes you can mash up, either.
Which begs the question; why the hell is it even here?
While I'm sure there are a lot of folks who are extremely glad that alignment no longer impacts their in-game choices, if it doesn't actually do anything, then why was it included at all? Why not replace the pages talking about alignment with a deeper, more in-depth discussion of character beliefs and morality, since that's all been reduced to pure roleplay (as far as I can tell)?
3) An Overabundance Of DM Discretion
The Dungeon Master is one of the most important positions at the table; without them, there's no game. However, 5E is a lot more like the second edition of the game, in that it expects the DM to not just rule on what's happening (like a judge or a referee), but to actively use their discretion as part of the core rules.
I'll give you an example so you can see what I'm talking about. The wild magic sorcerer's description says that the DM may choose to make them roll a d20 any time they cast a spell of 1st-level or higher. If that roll is a 1, then they roll on the wild magic surge chart.
A core feature of a class is entirely dependent on the DM's discretion. If you have a DM who doesn't know, or doesn't care, then the sorcerer will never actually roll on that table, which means a big part of that class will never function. Why put that decision on the DM, instead of just writing a rule that made the sorcerer roll that d20 every time they cast a spell, thus making it both truly random and feel like a game of Russian roulette? Or why not instead offer expanded language that states that when the sorcerer is in a stressful situation, or is suffering from any conditions, they must roll the d20 then?
It's both one more thing for a DM to keep track of and it's asking them to put their nose directly into a player's core class feature.
This isn't the only instance of this thinking showing through in the rules, either. If you look at skill checks, there's no longer a chart showing the appropriate difficulty check for certain tasks. Not so long ago, if you wanted to make an appropriate knowledge roll to know what monster you were facing, there would be a formula for determining that DC (typically something like monster CR + 10), and you would be able to ask questions about it based on how high above the DC you rolled. There were similar formulas for determining the DC for making a certain jump, for successfully persuading or intimidating a target, etc. Now there's a footnote in the Dungeon Master's Guide regarding average DC level based on how difficult a task might be, but there are no specific tables for particular tasks and challenges, or for modifiers to them.
If you have a good DM, this isn't a big deal. If you have one who isn't mechanically savvy, or who decides to arbitrarily punish the group by setting nigh-impossible difficulty checks, then there's nothing in the rules you could raise as a point in your defense.
4) Big Gaps In The Rules
It's impossible to make a rules system that covers everything. Even attempting such an impossible task is to court madness. But with the exception of when I joined a second edition campaign, I have never seen a game where there were fewer answers in the official rules about things that will actually come up with a fair bit of regularity.
For example, we have some inkling of when certain races get older... but where are the age penalties/benefits (and if they don't exist, then what difference does it make how old you are)? We have rules for breaking objects, but no specific rules about trying to sunder the weapon, armor, or shield being wielded by an opponent. We have no set DC levels for given skills, as mentioned above, and there are no real rules for how you learn new languages. As a sample of the things that, while I was trying to build characters and figure out twists for an intro adventure, left me sighing and muttering, “Goddammit, 5E...”
Sure, these aren't insurmountable problems. But if someone tries to sell you a car, and that car has parts missing, you'd be understandably irritated as you find ways to fill in those gaps. Especially if you were in the middle of a long campaign when you realized a piece you figured would be there just isn't.
When I first came across the concept of archetypes back in 3.5, and then later on in Pathfinder, I thought they were a phenomenal idea. You took a base class like the fighter or the rogue (which already had a general, level 1-20 progression), and you swapped out certain abilities to make a more custom package of abilities. Maybe your fighter gave up heavy armor proficiency in exchange for additional damage with light weapons, making them into a duelist, or your ranger gave up spells in exchange for the ability to create traps. Archetypes were taking an already solid foundation, and providing you additional options you could use to better realize certain concepts.
The keyword there is option. Archetypes were not a required part of the game. Much like prestige classes, you could use them if they suited your concept, or ignore them if they didn't.
One of the most irritating aspects of 5E for me is that it kept what I can only think of as a holdover from 4E, in that classes much choose a particular archetype which more specifically defines their powers. Rogues have to make the choice between arcane trickster, shadow dancer, and assassin, for example. Barbarians can elect to go berserker, or totem worshiper. And so on, and so forth.
Yes there are more options than that now, but these are the choices you're faced with in the base book.
The problem is that there is no longer a foundation class; every class has branching paths. And the specificity of those branching paths often eliminates certain character concepts (perhaps just as much as the narrowing of class features I mentioned in the beginning). I don't mind their existence, as several of these archetypes are fun to play with; I object to them being mandatory. Because if they are optional, they give you additional tools to use for making your best game. If they aren't, then you're just being forced to cram your concept into one of these more narrowly defined paths which feels more like something out of an MMORPG like Diablo or World of Warcraft than the free-form universe of options and customization that tabletop RPGs have the ability to offer.
While you can make the argument that the DM can just change the rules at their own table, these criticisms apply to the rules as they're written, not how someone may modify them in their personal games.
For more of Neal Litherland's work, check out his gaming blog Improved Initiative, or take a look at his archive over at Gamers!
Picture Reference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUDJzEagqE0
Before you begin reading this guide, I would like to formally make note of my identity. I am Balamast, Master Thief of the local thieves guild; some of you may know me as Fox Fingers and if you don’t, I am terribly disappointed. I have spent the last 20 years perfecting my craft and now I will give you the five most useful tips I can share to improve your skills. If you are not of the charismatic or dexterous among us, please stop reading and go learn how to be like the rest of the barbarians. Well, shall we begin?
1) Make Sure You Have A Silver Tongue
Not every problem can be solved with metal, sometimes you must use your charm to get away with things you otherwise wouldn't. You must obtain a silver tongue. To do this, practice speaking to all manners of people. Try convincing someone that you’re somebody you’re not. Start simple, pretend to be a merchant from a far away place seeking land to be purchased. The more you practice, the better you will get at speaking quickly; especially when you are caught off guard. This is by far your most valuable asset as it will save your life in a pinch. This skill allows you to learn information that will give you an edge in these situations.
2) Light On Your Feet
I can boldly assume you understand that being light on your feet is an important mechanic to becoming a good thief, right? Well, when it comes to running away from a caravan of guards who just caught you stealing from the king's cache, you bet that your not fighting them. Do what we thieves do best, RUN! Running isn’t just about beating your feet and controlling your breathing, it’s about fluidity of movement. We need to teach you how to fall from great heights, jump over railings, using alleyway walls to climb up onto a roof, the like. What I am getting at is that you need to go practice. Find some buildings to play around with, practice running as fast as you can, stretch your muscles and let it become not thought, but instinct. Eventually everything will become muscle memory and will be easily applicable where ever you go.
3) Know What You Are Dealing With
Every rookie thief has made this mistake in the past, going in blind. You must know at all times what you are dealing with and the repercussions of such. What I mean by this is that when you pick your target, who does it belong to, what kind of power do they hold, are you willing it take to risks if you get caught. There are lots of different people out in the world, you could be stealing from a powerful wizard and you just might end up becoming a toad for the rest of your measly existence. So do yourself a favor and study. Learn everything you can about what it is your after so you have the best chances of succeeding. I am friends with far too many toads now.
4) The Thieves Language
So, once we have our shinies and bobbles, where the hell do we go to sell them? Well, we must look for the marks. Have you learned thieves cant? We use this to mark places of interest under the naked eye of the city. We use it to communicate guard patterns, places to sell your stolen goods, jobs or even some useful items for any traveling thief. Thieves cant can also be used to communicate directly to others with slight hand gestures, that's how group jobs are performed, we do it without saying a word. So keep an eye out for these markings throughout the cities, you will be surprised by what might turn up.
5) Last Resort
I always put this as my last lesson when it comes to teaching thieves. I am not a believer in killing, nor do I condone what ever acts you take outside of these teachings. But, as a thief you must be able to play dirty, a good majority of us are not tough fighters. I would always say run first but at some point in your career your going to be surrounded. Step one is to take a good hard look at your surroundings, see what you can use to advantage. Whether it be sand to throw in their faces or a rock to hide behind. Find a way to get in between the armor. Exploit weaknesses when possible, i guarantee you will always be able to out fight a man in plate. Exhaust him by dodging his attacks and when an opportunity arises go for it. We thieves tend to excel at knowing the human body allowing us to perform what I like to call “Sneak Attacks”; I am clever. Basicly pointing your blade into a weak point of the body, this tends to be more difficult with bigger weapons so we tend to stick with the knife.
Thank you for taking the time in reading this guide as I hope it helps you achieve your goals and dreams of obtaining whatever it is your after. Remember to speak well, be nimble as a fox, learn about your target, know our language and when you have nothing else know how to fight. I do not run an assassins guild so if you get in trouble for murder, understand that purchasing this document holds me under no legalities of your actions.
Benjamin Witunsky, artist, writer and nerd savant. Cofounder of the NerdMantle Podcast available on Soundcloud, Itunes and Google Play Music.
Picture provided by the author
Party balance. I kind of hate this term. Maybe not the term, so much as the idea it represents. Yes, having your balanced party of a healer, a damage dealer, a damage sponge, and the person who does out of combat stuff covers all your bases. But I find that configuration so incredibly boring!!
I get it, though. I really do. Having all your bases covered is the best way to ensure success. But sometimes, it’s more exciting to completely overwhelm a challenge with what you’re good at, and then wonder if you can just overcompensate for what you can’t do.
With that in mind, I decided to look at some of the fun that can be had with parties that are all the same class. I find that restrictions like that really let my creativity shine. So for your reading pleasure, I’ve put together a list of some of my favorite ideas for same class parties in Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, using only the Player’s Handbook.
1) All Fighter Party
Fighter is often thought of as the beginner class, or worse, the boring class. However, if there’s one class that could handle any feasible situation as a same class party, it would be our humble fighting man. After all, they’re the one class that gains the single most ability score increases on the way to level 20. (All classes gain five increases, with the exception of rogue and fighter who gain six and seven, respectively.) Anywhere an ability score increase can be taken, a feat can be taken instead, allowing a fighter to either round out party weaknesses, or hone their strengths further.
Even if the GM doesn’t allow taking feats in lieu of ability score increases, some of their class features make them very well suited to dealing with almost any sort of violent or dangerous theat. They have the second highest hit dice, as well as the Second Wind feature. These combined grant them considerable healing capacity for themselves, since a short rest would let them regain quite a bit of HP, and then they regain use of their second wind which gives them yet another burst of HP.
Things get really crazy when you consider that they can get up to 4 attacks per round, and they also possess the Action Surge ability, which lets them act a second time immediately after their turn. If the all fighter party absolutely needs to finish off an enemy with a quickness, they can all use their Action Surges in one combat round to double the amount of attacks they can make. This means that a party of four level 20 fighters can belt out 32 attacks in one turn!
For Added Fun: All variant humans. Because extra versatility from an extra proficiency and an extra feat is exactly what the most versatile combat class needs.
2) All Barbarian Party
The all barbarian party is similar in many ways to the all fighter party. They’re all exceptional with weapons, have a great deal of HP and also possess some short term effects that allow them to really push forward when needed. Barbarians, however, will be relying a little more heavily on their special abilities than fighters would.
Rage is what makes barbarians special, and it’s simultaneously what limits what they can do, since it improves strength based attacks. This means that to deal with far off enemies, they’ll need to either throw things, or just try to close ranks. (Luckily, they do gain some abilities to make them more mobile.)
One of the other benefits of rage is that it’ll also make them even tougher to defeat, making them resistant to most normal damage. Coupled with an AC that’s improved by dexterity AND constitution, and you’ll have a maniacal horde with high HP that can rampage their way through any threat.
For Added Fun: All dragonborn. Call them the BARFbarians, because they’ll be puking up fire, acid, lightning, and Pelor knows what else on their enemies in their fits of rage.
3) All Monk Party
Monk, in a way, is a very selfish class. Much of their abilities only benefit them, usually by granting them all manner of resistances to different effects, or a greatly increased movement speed. An individual monk is only useful in terms of their ability to move quickly on the battlefield and to tell the GM “No, that monster’s ability actually does nothing to me. :^)”
Though when we carry these abilities to the illogical conclusion of making the party nothing but Monks, it trivializes a lot of the more mundane, non-combat challenges a GM can throw at the players. Noxious gas in a disease ridden warren? Breathing it like fresh air. Charming them to cause them attack allies? One turn later, they have a clear head.
This makes monk an odd class out that doesn’t really excel at removing problems, but instead causing most problems to not matter to them, which is a strikingly appropriate theme. An entire party of monks is thus free from worldly concerns, allowing them to focus on greater causes.
For Added Fun: All elves. They’ll already be eschewing all sorts of things like eating, knowing the languages of people they talk to, and even obeying the laws of gravity; we may as well add sleeping and needing light to see to that list.
4) All Warlock Party
Warlock is, hands down, one of the most bizarre classes in D&D 5e. I’d dare to say that they’re best described as how they contrast against fighters. While a fighter has all manner of flexibility in regards to combat abilities and numerous feats, the warlock has access to all sorts of loosely related magical abilities, many of which are not combative in nature.
With that said, for both story and ability cohesion, the best way to make the strengths of the warlock apparent is for all of them to have the same patron. (Incidentally, patron choice also has the least impact on what abilities a warlock has!) Once this is done, however, the plot hooks write themselves, and their sinister nature shines in all it’s terrifying glory.
For example, a party of all Great Old One patron warlocks could easily spy on and conspire against the inhabitants of a city using their Create Thrall ability, or a group of Fiend warlocks could demonstrate their might to a remote village with Hurl Through Hell. From there, the insidious conspiracies can only grow.
For Added Fun: All tieflings. When polite society rejected them, they found solace in religion. Not Helm, nor Lathander. No no no. They started following Nyarlathotep, to return the favor of the world giving them nothing but suffering.
5) All Rogue Party
Rogue is, without a doubt, my favorite class in D&D. In 5th edition, they’re capable of all kinds of shenanigans. This propensity for silliness only becomes more apparent when you have a party of nothing but rogues.
For starters, a rogue gains 5 proficiencies from their class, along with an additional 4 from their background, and anywhere from 1-3 from their race. If one source grants a proficiency a character already has, the player may then pick any other proficiency instead. This gives rogues a tremendous amount of flexibility in picking skills. Which is to say nothing about how a level 6 rogue will have four skills with double their proficiency bonus. (Further meaning that a party of four rogues will have 16 such skills!)
They’re nothing to sneeze at in combat, either. Assume a four rogue party is armed with both ranged and melee weapons. If they split up into groups of two, with proper positioning, all four rogues can have sneak attack against every target. (Proper positioning meaning one duo approaches a target, allowing the other duo to make ranged attacks against it with sneak attack.)
Which is to say nothing of some of the other abilities rogues have, many of which either improve their action economy in combat, or further improve their skill rolls. This isn’t to say rogue is without drawbacks, though. They’re one of the more fragile classes, and once one of them is dispatched, the rest will likely fall just as quickly.
For Added Fun: All Half-elves. Because two more skills they can freely place proficiency in is precisely what the most skilled class needs.
There we have it: some of the bizarre outcomes of compounding the strengths of a particular class onto itself more times than might be necessary. While party balance is a nice, safe bet to take, I’d encourage you to play on the wild side from time to time by getting together with your other players and agreeing on a same class party. It’s one thing to read and imagine what such a party would be like, but it’s another thing entirely to see it in action.
Just be sure to find some way to compensate for what your party will be missing if you do!
Aaron der Schaedel is often more consumed with the idea of whether something could be done, than whether it should be done. This more often than not gets him into trouble, but he always has a hilarious story to tell afterwards. For example, he’s going to include an unrelated link here to meet his external link quota, and go completely meta in explaining his intentions. You can tell him if you thought this was a good idea or not on Twitter: @Zamubei
Picture Reference: http://looneydm.blogspot.com/2012/06/all-wizard-party.html
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