Growing up in a religious and conservative family in the 80s, I remember a few scares that swept through churches across America. Someone thought Teletubbies was an attempt to foist the “gay agenda” onto our children. Others worried that Star Wars embodied Eastern mysticism, turning precious young minds away from the truth of God’s Word, turning them toward duality. Eventually, card games like Magic the Gathering took the place of “greatest threat to American youth,” followed by the sweeping craze of young people reading a book series called Harry Potter.
But nothing held so much dark, terrible power as the bastion of evil, Dungeons & Dragons.
Churches had tracts (small comics with a Christian message) that warned parents of the dangers. Christian musicians sang about how Satan-worshipers kept D&D books out as part of their natural paraphenalia and rituals. The game was no game, but rather a gateway straight to hell! After all, someone knew someone who knew someone who maybe killed themselves because their D&D character died in the game — nevermind the fact that, much like Superman or other heroes dying in comic books, the rules have always made it possible for characters to return to life. The game taught kids to cast spells, inducting them into real witchcraft and satanic rituals… or so the stories were told from church to church, parent to parent.
Plus, let’s face it, D&D kids can come off pretty weird, ranting about how “with his last conscious breath, my wizard used his level 4 burning hands to bathe the evil demon queen in flames while Tordek the dwarf cleric rolled a natural crit when he summoned the power of his gods to close the portal that led to the Abyss.”
And so it was that parents who never watched a moment of the game nor looked at a single page out of a book “knew” exactly what this devil-spawned trap held in store for their precious innocent ones.
It wasn’t until about 2007 that I really took a serious look at D&D and discovered what it is, and what it isn’t. I ran a few groups with co-workers and friends, and had immense fun. D&D is about telling cooperative stories… scripting surprises, twists, and turns into the various adventures… creating characters with exciting backstories, heroic ideals, and all-too-human flaws… learning to role-play the traits and qualities that might seem completely foreign in the real world.
Every group has a Story-teller or Dungeon Master a.k.a. DM, someone who puts together the setting, provides the description, plots out the battles, plans out the course of events, and portrays all the various faces that populate the world of the game. In groups I’ve seen, the DM and the players work together (to some extent) to figure out what makes for the best story, the most fun, the moments of high adventure and glorious victory. It’s a lot of work, but when everything goes smooth, it’s the most rewarding place at the table.
All the action is resolved with a roll of a 20-sided die and some number off a character sheet. Even if it seems ridiculous, players can try anything they want, and the DM has to (Fairly!) determine whether the effort succeeds or fails based on the roll of the dice plus the character’s ability to do whatever was attempted.
Player: “I want to somersault over the orc’s head to reach the princess before she falls into the death trap.”
DM: “That’s going to be some difficult acrobatics to pull off… but with some luck, you might do it. Give me a roll…”
A few weeks ago, one of my son’s friends found out I used to be a Dungeon Master, or DM. He and his friend had been trying to start a D&D game for some time, but they couldn’t find someone to be the DM. I volunteered, and started planning the campaign. Sure enough, a dear friend found out my son was getting involved in a D&D group, and responded with a concerned gasp. After all, it’s such a dangerous and evil thing.
To be fair, she’s a counselor and has seen some people go off the deep end with this or other hobbies. I think her concern is more for the risk that could be true of any of us–when something harmless and enjoyable starts to dominate our free time and energy.
But regarding those old fears I heard for years… Saying that playing D&D is a gateway to witchcraft and satanism is like saying that Axis & Allies makes a person more likely to become a skinhead and try to rebuild the Third Reich. It’s like claiming my Madden skills on the PS4 are a step on the path to an NFL contract.
Do some people go nuts with it? Certainly – just as we do with all sorts of hobbies and interests. But the camaraderie and joy I’ve seen around a table have been life-giving and inspirational.
Here’s a clip of Matthew Mercer – a voice actor in a number of video games and animated movies/shows – talking about the impact of this game and the style of art it involves. He really captures the essence of what makes this thing awesome.
Is D&D a trap, some gateway to dangerous places? Perhaps–but not in the way my church friends from the 80s thought. There’s a magic involved, for sure, but it isn’t in make-believe treasures and pretend spellcasting…
It’s the power of cooperative story, the hush that comes over the room as someone describes what’s happening, and the rush of creative excitement as we decide what comes next.
It’s a trap, alright, and a hard one to escape. Want to try? Give me a roll.
A couple weeks ago I started prepping a campaign for a Dungeons & Dragons group. I met with the players, discussed expectations, and helped them create their characters.
My two older sons (ages 16 & 11) are part of the group, and I thought it would be good for them to try out their characters’ abilities before the whole group meets to start the campaign. We decided we’d play around with some light combat, exploration, and social interaction so they could practice their skills and role-playing.
Then The Curse of Strahd came in the mail. This book is 5th Edition’s version of Ravenloft, a popular campaign setting that goes back to the original D&D from the early 80s. Count Strahd von Zarovich is the central vampire villain, D&D’s version of Dracula, a character who appears in numerous products related to the game. I remember a fighting game and customizable card game that included Strahd among other notable characters from various expansions and supplements.
What impresses me most about 5th Edition’s core books is that they return the focus to elements of story-telling. 4th Edition was fun enough for me (and the first version I played). You could tell a story using those rules, but the system seemed to center on all the characters’ powers–daily abilities, encounter spells, at-will powers, feats and skills and so on. 5th Edition keeps some of that, but from the start, the books are built around the story the players and DM are trying to tell, from the subtle but evocative details described within a room to the long-term arcs and world-changing events that could form a thrilling campaign.
Curse of Strahd continues this trend beautifully. The first part of the book addresses how to run a horror-themed campaign instead of the usual swords-and-sorcery that D&D regulars might expect. The book also includes a player character background for someone who has endured a harrowing experience that forever scars their lives. Of course there is a long campaign arc with various locales, adventures, monsters, factions, and details necessary to run multiple sessions taking characters from level 1 to 10. As an option, there’s a short exploration adventure called Death House which is designed to bring new characters from level 1 to 3.
I decided to run Death House with my sons to give them a chance to learn their characters. I haven’t ever had as much fun with pre-made expansions as I did with this small excerpt from the larger campaign setting. To set the mood, we started just before dusk with the lights turned off and some creepy music playing from a YouTube track. My oldest son was immediately suspicious of everything, from the swirling mists (something like a magical side-effect of the corruption on the land) to the dirt road near the party’s campsite (something like a dirt road made of dirt that leads to a place).
After much cajoling, I got them to the actual house where the adventure was to take place. The book describes each room of the four story manor in great detail, and practices what it preaches about setting the horror tone. Some recurring bits of description show that not all is right in the Durst family manor. For example, almost every room has ornately carved wood paneling that seems like something artistic and lovely at first glance–say, children dancing in the woods. On closer inspection, characters can see corpses hanging from the trees, or swarms of bats attacking the children. The description of a spare bedroom addresses all the plain,. dusty furnishings, then includes the following: a smiling doll in a yellow dress sits in a nook under a window, her face covered in cobwebs like a wedding veil.
Without spoiling too much, each the most innocuous rooms or objects in the manor can prove dangerous… especially when my younger son decided to investigate everything.
Me: “The door creaks on rusty hinges as it swings open to reveal a dusty closet. Some tattered rags and old bars of soap clutter the shelf, and a broom leans against the back wall behind strands of ancient spiderweb.”
Younger son: “I investigate the room!”
Older son: “What? Why? It’s just a closet.”
Me: “Haha, seriously? Ok. Well, as soon as you step into the closet, the broom flies into the air, thrashing about, trying to beat you back. It’s magically animated and exceedingly hostile to intruders. Roll for initiative.”
This is all straight from the book, which mentions the animated broom of attack that goes on the offensive if anyone comes within five feet. I thought, “Why would anyone step into a dusty closet of worthless belongings?” To investigate, of course! Silly me–you never know what players are going to do.
Since I only had two players, I made a couple NPCs, especially since my older son is practicing healing as a cleric. He got his chance when the younger son’s rogue took a broomstick to the noggin and got knocked out. (Lesson learned? Perhaps? We’ll see.)
I made a gnome tank for hilarity’s sake, and she took a little abuse. Then I tried the “haunted one” background to make a warlock, who proved to be a fun NPC I’ll use in future efforts. She repeats the last few words of every sentence, but in a whisper. I stole this strange and seemingly unconscious mannerism from a girl who lived in our neighborhood some years ago. “We should proceed with caution with caution… the spirits here seem restless and vengeful and vengeful…”
The haunted one background led to a character who witnessed a monster slaughtering dozens of innocents around her, yet for some reason it looked right at her and spared her life before continuing its rampage. As a result, she’s disturbed and broken, but it drives her to assist anyone in need even if the situation is dangerous. Additionally, her faith in divine beings is shattered, but she also talks to spirits no one else can see. The background provides for a random trinket selected from a list of 50 options designed for a gothic style campaign or setting–for example a clock that runs backwards for one hour every midnight, a coat stolen from a dying soldier, or a handmirror with an image of a bronze medusa on the backing. The options are all splendid and offer interesting hooks for future stories.
I wanted to play the NPC more than I ended up doing, but acting as DM and trying to run two distinct characters was a bit much to keep up with… plus I don’t like the idea of the DM playing a character, as it often leads to a sense of stealing the spotlight from the players.
Nevertheless, we had an exciting time and a great warm-up for the new characters my children made. We explored about halfway through the adventure in the first 3-hour session, then finished it off in a second session of similar length. It could have gone another session had we been thorough in exploring every hall and room. I revealed only what the characters could see, using a makeshift map hastily drawn on loose paper. (“You see a hall to the left and stairs that lead down. The chanting is stronger downstairs.”)
That left several rooms in the basement untouched, preventing a number of possible encounters from taking place.
The adventure is designed for leveling up based on story progress instead of experience points. Once the players reached the way downstairs, they hit level 2, regardless of what they have or haven’t completed. After they leave the manor, no matter how they complete the scenario, they reach level 3 and stand ready to delve deeper into 5th Edition Ravenloft.
While prepping for this D&D group, I noted with some chagrin the massive amount of crap I bought for 4th Edition. The pre-made, published adventures all remain unused, several of them still wrapped in plastic. I feared I might also dislike the campaign components of the 5th Edition books… but Curse of Strahd has proved well worth the time and money spent.
When the first version of D&D Next came out for playtesting, I wrote a post about my experience creating a character in the new system. That post gets more weekly views than any other in my blog. But I feel bad because it’s based on outdated materials.
So I am happy to write a proper post about the Player’s Handbook and creating a character in 5th Edition.
I finally got my Players’ Handbook (PHB) in the mail, and I dug into the book to see exactly what my dollars purchased.
There’s plenty that looks familiar… but some changes I love. Bottom line up front? I got it for less than cover price on Amazon, and I have no regrets about the money I spent. But I’m not sure I’d throw $50 down and be as happy.
Chapter 1 covers the basic intro of “What is D&D?” and the process of creating a character. It lays out some key points: D&D consists of exxploration, social interaction, and combat. The game boils down to the DM giving the players a scene, the players describing their intended actions, and the DM describing what happens next.
Chapter 2 covers races. There are 9 races in the PHB – the 4 primary (dwarf, elf, halfling, human) and 5 uncommon (dragonborn, gnome, half-elf, half-orc, tiefling) – each with a little bit of sub-race variant or an option to guide that permits a little variation and character differentiation. For example, you’re an Elf? Are you a high elf (bonus INT, bonus cantrip), a wood elf (bonus WIS, better stealth), or dark elf (bonus CHA, bonus darkvision, racial spell, disadvantage in direct sunlight)? Each race has similar options.
Chapter 3 introduces classes. The PHB comes with 12 classes, so already it gives more bang for the (considerable) bucks than 4E did. The classes consist of: barbarian, bard, cleric, druid, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, warlock, and wizard.
Each class has a few subclass options to distinguish one version of the class from another. For example, you may have the nimble thief, the brutal assassin, or the arcane trickster, all falling under the rogue class.
Yes, that’s right, magical rogues.
My favorite section is Chapter 4, Personality and Background. It’s character concept Heaven, with an explanation of four characteristics to guide a player’s understanding of their character from a sheet of numbers to a living person. This chapter introduces traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws, and that’s where I’ll focus the majority of this post.
Traits describe likes or dislikes, past accomplishments, fears, mannerisms, and the influence of ability scores. (Perhaps my dextrous rogue takes pride in his nimble fingers and specifically his ability to pull off sleight-of-hand without getting caught.)
Ideals are what drives your character. It’s the principle she’ll never go back on, the rule that guides his decisions, the goal that keeps her up at night. If you don’t have an idea off the top of your head, don’t worry; the PHB provides a bunch of examples to choose from later.
Bonds are those ties which connect your character to someone, something, or somewhere else. It’s the prior allegiance or baggage your character brings–whether that turns out to be a burden, a weakness exploited by a villain, or a source of inspiration that pushes your character to heroic deeds.
Finally, flaws are your character’s blind spots or weak points. What vice does this character secretly cling to? What drives them into fits of rage that might challenge their morals?
When I reviewed the Starter Set, this was a feature I loved about the pre-made character sheets. Seeing it fleshed out in the PHB makes me a happy player / DM.
And if a player gets stuck, the PHB includes backgrounds that might further embellish or expand a concept of a character. Each background gives some story details that can help out in a pinch in-game or can be used as hooks by the DM to motivate a character to action.
My first party had a player who was a “by-the-dice” guy; he rolled an appropriate die for what class, and what race he’d play. He rolled a set of stats and took them in order. When he got “paladin” he rolled a die based on the provided list of gods. He ended up with a Dwarf paladin who worshiped Nature. How’s that for a unique concept?
If you’re a by-the-dice player, the PHB hooks you up. Chapter 4 includes tables to cover each characteristic for a chracter’s background. You can choose an appropriate ideal, bond, or flaw… or let the dice create a concept for you.
My D&D Next character Lamoncha (from the post mentioned at the beginning) was designed to be an artisan who crafted intricate mechanical trinkets based on his time spent with the gnomes near his birthplace. Here’s an example of how he’d shake out with a random-rolled Guild Artisan background:
Business trade: wagonmaker / wheelwright (1d20 – rolled 18)
Personality trait: “I’m well known for my work, and I want to make sure everyone appreciates it. I’m always taken aback when people haven’t heard of me.” (1d8 – rolled 8)
Ideal: “Community: It is the duty of all civilized people to strengthen the bods of community and the security of civilization. (Lawful)” (1d6 – rolled 1)
Bond: “I owe my guild a great debt for forging me into the person I am today.” (1d6 – rolled 3)
Flaw: “No one must ever learn that I once stole money from guild coffers.” (1d6 – rolled 3)
That’s something you can start a character with. He’s arrogant, but he’s noble. He’s driven by a sense of duty based on a debt owed, both figuratively (out of gratitude) and literally (due to his secret theft). And that’s just rolling dice without giving any thought.
It’s really that easy to come up with a character concept if you have no previous idea walking in.
Here’s an example from start-to-finish, rolling dice for every decision:
Race: 1d10 for 9 races, rolled 9 = Tiefling (one of the few classes without subracial options) Class: 1d12, rolled 7 = Paladin. To add to my concept, I’ll roll now for the 2nd level choice of fighting style.
Fighting Style at 2nd level: 1d4, rolled 2 = Dueling (bonus for wielding only one melee one-hand weapon).
Ability Scores: 4d6 minus lowest, rolled 15 STR, 10 DEX, 11 CON, 14 INT, 10 WIS, 12 CHA (Not a perfect set for a pally, since CHA and CON should be up there right after STR, but it’ll do. So I have a smarter-than-average paladin who’s not as tough as others.) Gender: 1d4 split evens/odds, rolled 1 = Male
Height: using provided base 4’9“ + modifer 2d8, rolled 9 = 5‘6“
Weight: using provided base 110 lb + height modifier of 9 x(2d4), rolled 6 = 164 lbs. (Does this matter? Not really. But a character can be completely random, and might end up shorter or taller, larger or smaller than average, and that might add something.) Alignment: 1d10 for 9 possibilities, rolled 2 = Neutral Good “folk do the best they can to help others according to their needs.” (I lucked out, since a Chaotic Neutral paladin might be quite the contradiction.) Deity: 1d8 for 7 Neutral Good deities, rolled 7 = Mystra, goddess of magic, with domain of Knowledge (using the Forgotten Realms list provided in the Appendices)
Background: 1d12 for 11 backgrounds, rolled 10 = Soldier (skill proficiency for Athletics and Intimidation, some equipment listed) Specialty (Soldier): 1d8, rolled 4 = Cavalry
Feature (Soldier): Military Rank (with description of how that plays out in social interaction)
Personality Trait (Soldier): 1d8, rolled 8 = “I face problems head on. A simple, direct solution is the best path to success.”
Ideal (Soldier): 1d6, rolled 1 = Greater Good. “Our lot is to lay down our lives in defense of others.”
Bond (Soldier): 1d6, rolled 4 = “I’ll never forget the crushing defeat my company suffered or the enemies who dealt it.”
Flaw (Soldier): 1d6, rolled 6 = “I’d rather eat my armor than admit when I’m wrong.”
Starting wealth (Paladin, 5d4 x 10, rolled 11) = 110 gp
So now I’ve got a Tiefling Paladin who served as a cavalry soldier and suffered a terrible defeat. He’s not a sword-and-board “tank” but a powerful and skilled striker. He’s smarter than average, and his chosen deity is focused on knowledge, so that gives him perhaps a touch of the rational and logical beyond your average religious devotee motivated by faith. He’s straight-forward and direct, willing to sacrifice, seeking to help others… but (perhaps due in part to his above-average intelligence) he won’t admit when he’s wrong. And he has a history that drives him to do good, but might also be a tie to connect him to the story of the campaign, when the last survivors of his defeated company fall under the sway of the new dragon cult encroaching on the borders of civilization…
Yeah, that works as a concept, eh?
Chapter 5 covers equipment, and that looks pretty much like previous versions. One addition I like is the “trinket” table. It’s a d100 table of odds and ends that might be part of a character’s story, since each character gets to start with one. It can also be a DM tool to provide something more in a treasure hoard than just “X gold pieces and a +1 sword.” To me, it’s ripe with possible hooks.
The Soldier background states that the character already has “an insignia of rank, a trophy taken from a fallen enemy (a dagger, broken blade, or piece of a banner), a set of bone dice or deck of cards, a set of common clothes, and a belt pouch containing 10 gp.” But everyone also gets a trinket!
Our tiefling paladin’s trinket, rolling 73, is “the shell of an egg painted with scenes of human misery in disturbing detail.” I did not rollfor the trinket prior to writing the bit above, but this fits perfectly as a token of the true nature of the dragon cult mentioned. Perhaps a former comrade brought this as evidence of what’s really going on, before she suddenly and mysteriously disappeared.
Finally, Chapter 6 is the “optional” chapter, covering multi-class rules and feats. These can be ignored at DM and group discretion, which is great for newbie players who don’t need to be overwhelmed with more options on top of everything thus far. Looking over the multi-class rules, it seems to make more sense than 4E ever did. I can easily picture my fantasy story’s main character as a cleric/warlock multi-class character. The rules make it easy to see how that might play out, covering possible rule conflicts and how different class features interact with one another. Minimum ability prerequisites are established to keep my kids’ favorite NPC, the dumb-as-dirt “HorcSorc” half-orc Sorcerer from going Wizard, and so on.
For feats, there’s enough to give you something useful, but no pages and pages of options like 4E.
There’s a decent section to cover how the game actually plays, with Chapter 7: Using Ability Scores, Chapter 8: Adventuring, and Chapter 9: Combat. These all look pretty familiar compared to 4E. I’ve noted elsewhere that advantage and disadvantage seem (to me) to be the biggest change. Instead of a million bonuses, if you have a lot of things in your favor, you roll 2d20s and take the higher as your attempt. If you have things working against you, you take the lower of 2d20. It seems elegant and simple, but I still have yet to see it in play to know how well it works.
Thelast part of the book covers spells, and there are plenty: 3.5 pages of 4 columns per page listing all the spells, since 8 classes use magic. So there are heaps of magic to start with. Spells fill a quarter of the book, from pg 211-289 out of 320 pages. Naturally, pally and ranger are shortest lists, and wizard goes on forever. But the point is, magic is robust in 5E.
And I don’t just mean in the spellcasting mechanics.
I’m quite pleased. The character sheets may be flat but that doesn’t mean the characters have to be. With a little creative thought or even just a few dice rolls, your character can go from zero to 3D with ease.
Thanks for reading! Have you checked out the PHB or playtested 5th Edition? What are your thoughts on it?
Is there something I didn’t answer? Ask a question in the comments, and I’ll look into it.
The home of David M. Williamson, writer of fantasy, sci-fi, short stories, and cultural rants.