Tag Archives: dungeons and dragons

The Means Condemn the End

A post in which I contemplate something related to tabletop roleplaying games. Roll a Wisdom saving throw with a DC of 16; on a failure, you’re a geek (Level 5).

In my recent return to tabletop RPGs, I’ve joined some Facebook groups, discussed ideas with gamer friends, and watched some Youtube videos–both of live-streamed games and thoughts on how to run the game better.

One topic caught my eye: someone suggested the possibility of a “good” necromancer character, which triggered a lot of discussion. Shortly after reading the back-and-forth, I chatted with a co-worker about an upcoming group. “I’m thinking necromancer,” she said, which led to further discussion of the idea. The next day, I spotted a panel of experienced players covering a variety of topics, including:

Is necromancy inherently evil?

If you’re not familiar with games like Dungeons & Dragons, first off, it’s not the gilded double-door into a witches’ coven or a neon-lit path into Satanism. Players take on the role of a hero or heroine in a fantasy setting: perhaps the beefy fighter or barbarian (think Aragorn, Eowyn or Conan), or a bearded wizard (Gandalf or Dumbledore). Maybe they choose a stealthy rogue or burglar (Bilbo Baggins, maybe Arya Stark) or someone with the power to heal (Elrond or Galadriel). One person plays the rest of the fantasy world… everything from the squire polishing armor to the great personalities like Jamie Lannister, Queen Cersei, and King Joffrey… all the bad guys, from the unnamed scrub Bandit #3 to the White Walkers to Ramsay Bolton and even Danaerys’ dragons.

In a game like this, monsters lurk around every corner, many of them with civilized faces to mask their dark hearts. In a game like this (usually), magic is real and so are the gods and goddesses who grant divine power to their faithful.

In a game like this, a wizard or other magic-user might even learn how to raise the dead and command the skeletons or zombies produced to fight for him or her.


It’s likely that if you’re reading this, you know all that already, so I’ll stop explaining the concepts and get back to the question:

Can there be such a thing as a “good” necromancer?

In other words, like the title suggests, in a game like D&D, are there some methods or powers that you cannot possibly justify using for noble purposes?

I flipped on the YouTube video of the discussion panel and skipped to the part about necromancy, hoping for some unique twists to add to my own ideas. To my surprise, all the participants shot the idea down without hesitation.

The best argument pointed out that in all societies, grave-robbing and defiling burial grounds are strongly forbidden and frowned upon. It’s kind of a universal rule. That being the case, one expects some severe consequences for any necromancer–a person who uses magic to animate the dead bodies of ancestors or loved ones. I think that’s a valid point and a consideration for how other characters in-game would interact with such an oddity. Fair point.

But then it devolved to “That’s just boring, lame character building.”  “A necromancer is evil just like paladins are lawful good.”  “It doesn’t make any sense–why in the would she do this?” One guy’s whole argument was “Necromancers are evil, because I ran a game with a guy who played one as the stereotypical ‘muahaha I shall make a city of undead and rule over it.’ And that dude was a jerk–I mean, apart from being a necromancer, he just was a bad person in game.”

I strongly disagree with all of these points, and not just because the idea of the good necromancer inspired a character and some creative writing. (I posted a scene with Fleuris earlier.)

I also think these points are poor arguments. So let me tackle these in order:

Good Necromancer is boring. Lame character building. 

Sure, if you want to create something that follows cookie-cutter norms. I suppose “the generous thief” or “the intelligent barbarian” or “the conflicted paladin” would also be lame.

Playing a character that doesn’t quite fit a stereotype–or rather, outright challenges it–can lead to fantastic role-playing moments.

In my first campaign, I had a player who rolled random dice for every decision about the character he was making. He ended up a Dwarf Paladin of Nature… something that doesn’t really fit the standard fantasy tropes. It made his backstory come alive–an outcast from his clan because of his strange religious views, a perfect ally to the husband and wife pair of elf rangers in the party, a hero with a cause to champion and built-in conflict a DM can exploit–er… use to craft interesting encounters.

Similarly, I had a player running a rogue in one campaign who, on our downtime, would tell me what his character was doing in the city. While his allies were off pursing personal goals and looking for leads on the next big score, the rogue would donate half his earnings to the orphanage that took him in as a child, and volunteer time with the kids. No one knew this was going on “in game” because it happened in messages and emails. His party members even got to the point of joking about how “you know how the rogues are, always sneaking some money and pick pocketing their way through the market.” But he played the most generous and selfless character I’ve seen in a campaign.

Yeah, playing against type is super lame. Don’t do it.

Of course there may be role-playing consequences. Not everyone will welcome a necromancer with open arms. Not everyone will buy the idea that “I’m using these powers for good.” But that’s all part of the fun and the conflict which makes RPGs great.

A necromancer is automatically evil, like paladins are automatically good.

One flaw in that statement: Depending on the edition of the game, paladins aren’t inherently good. If you’re devoted to an evil or chaotic deity, you probably lean toward Chaotic or Evil alignments. If a “good” deity can grant their champions powers and favor, so can a bad one. Paladins are just a mechanic for describing a warrior who is committed to a cause and blessed with divine power to pursue that cause.

Similarly, necromancy is a tool… one traditionally associated with evil, perhaps, but still a tool. But this logic is lost on some. One of the DMs in the YouTube video actually argued as follows:

“It just doesn’t make sense. Here you are, going after the evil necromancer, and the guy walking along next to you is a necromancer?”

The flaw in that logic is revealed when you substitute any class or archetype for “necromancer.” There are evil wizards, but the party doesn’t kill their resident magic-user before fighting an evil wizard. An evil cleric or assassin might be the villain in an encounter, but that doesn’t make the party cleric or rogue a villain.

Magic, like any class power, is a tool. How one uses it communicates more than the nature of the tool. A paladin who curb-stomps defenseless enemies because “they’re bad guys” isn’t what we’d call good. A necromancer that uses her powers to protect others and serve a noble cause shouldn’t be what we call bad.

It doesn’t make any sense.

For one, you’re in a fantasy setting. Nothing makes sense. Someone is channeling power into their weapon to deliver a blast of radiant power that damages the enemy. Someone else is waving their hands and becoming a human flame-thrower. Another person communes with supernatural entities that grant her otherworldly powers. But the necromancer trying to do something heroic? That, sir, is where I draw the line!

Necromancy used for “good” absolutely makes sense… if we try to consider how that can work. Imagine the noble who tells his subjects, “Our ancestors fought to establish this kingdom against all odds, spilling their very blood on the rocks where our city’s walls now stand. And now they return, ready to stand beside us, once again willing to take up arms against those who threaten all they worked to build!”

Imagine the party member whose personal quest, like Fleuris, is to find and raise the bodies of infamous villains or evildoers as part of their penance for their sins. Is it twisted, misguided, a little off? Yeah–and that’s what makes it great!

Guns don’t kill people, my horde of skeletal minions kill people.

Needless to say, I fall right into the camp that deems necromancy an amoral (okay maybe highly questionable) practice where what matters most is the end result. Use it to establish your undead army and create a necropolis to rule over? Evil. Use it to cleanse the necropolis and eliminate a growing threat to the nearby kingdom of goodly peoples? Good.

As in all things D&D, creativity and fun are what matter most. I’m having fun imagining Fleuris and the sorts of situations she might find herself in. I hope others are inspired to take a trope and turn it on its head… then run with it and see where the story leads.

What do you think?

Am I off course? Am I missing some key point? Let me know in a comment; I’d love to hear your point of view.

In Defense of Railroading

The players sit, holding their lucky dice. The lights are dim, and eerie music plays from a YouTube video to set the mood. The Dungeon Master looks over his screen and describes the setting…

DM: You see a well-worn path that winds between the trees, leading deeper into the gloomy forest.

Player 1: Well, forget that noise. I’d rather stay on the road and finish my journey into town.

DM: An overwhelming mist has descended, obscuring everything from view… everything except the path.

Player 2: Uh… I really wanted to get to town to purchase some new weapons and talk to the Mage’s Guild about new spells. Can we maybe set up camp and wait out this weather?

DM: You could… but now arcs of electricity tear through the clouds of mist, and the hairs on your skin rise. Anyone close to the mist is likely to take damage. But the path remains clear.

Early on in my development as a DM, I learned about “railroading” the players toward your intended destination. If a Dungeon Master / Storyteller forces players toward a particular path in obvious, heavy-handed ways, the game feels like the characters are passengers on a tour bus, being shown the sights but unable to direct the vehicle’s course. When a game about choices feels like you have none, you’re probably being railroaded.

That’s a bit of an excessive example, but this sort of thing can be pretty common if the DM has prepared an adventure and expects or demands that the players go along.

Railroading always ruins the fun… except for when it doesn’t.

The beauty of a tabletop RPG over video games is that anything’s possible. Any genre, any style, any action, any decision is available as an option to the player.

While that can lead to sensible decisions, increased immersion, and even awesome RP-ing, in certain groups it can also go awry. When problem players are willing to affect the entire group in order to get their personal jollies, the abundance of options creates opportunity for their hijinks. And when several players are new to the game, infinite choices can lead to no choice being made in a timely manner.

For example, upon entering a new setting and receiving a map of a mining village, some parties will see opportunities to go off on their own instead of staying with the group.

The same scattered attention can happen when players are provided a few different choices outside of civilization. When they come upon a wrecked wagon with signs of goblin prints but no indications of an attack, one person will suggest following that trail while another might try to chase down the other wagons in the caravan. And yet another is convinced there’s something in the ransacked wagon worth investigating or discovering.

Players can debate at length about what to do, where to go, who to talk to, how to accomplish a task… and every new bit of information starts the whole process over again.

This is where a little railroading may be better than none. I typically see three ways the game gets derailed: individual player actions, lack of personal motivation, and lack of flexibility on the DM’s part.

Moments in the Spotlight

It’s great for each player to have their time to shine, their moment when their character’s set of skills or connections can make the difference between victory or defeat. “Moment” is the key word, however.

When an individual turns the session into their private quest, it may make sense for the character’s story and motivations, but it also makes for a slow game. The other players are left “watching the show” as the DM has to interact in character(s) with this party member who has gone off on their own.

If multiple players do this at the same time, it turns into a nightmare of interwoven conversations and distractions. And while they all sort out their personal interests, players focused on the primary party goal are left staring at the walls or fiddling with their dice.

DM: You follow the leads for the missing caravan driver and arrive in the village of Choraulis after nightfall. The so-called guardsmen posted at the gate — miners, really — give you a close eye but let you pass. There’s a good bit of laughter, music, and noise at the finely-decorated inn to your left. The miners also have a raucous dive of a cantina set up near their shanties.

PC 1: I want to search around the inn, just to get a feel for the place, see what sort of people are in there.

PC 2: That orchard over there… is that, like, a nature shrine? I want to go over there and check it out.

PC 3: Is there something like a Mage’s Guild here? I’d like to find out what kind of magic spells and items they have.

PC 2: So am I at the Shrine?

DM: Yes, it’s a shrine of Nature, and the two ladies who run it are surprised and excited at the idea of a Dragonborn Druid – (chipper voice) “What an oddity! How pleasant to make your acquaintance!”

PC 1: If those guards are still there, I’d like to see how approachable they are, if they seem friendly, that sort of thing. Perception, I assume?

DM: No, that’d be Insight. Give me a roll. Ok, you spot one with a small insignia, and it seems like the other guys defer to him. He looks friendly and inviting, although a little on edge.

PC 4: Would I have contacts among the merchants in this town?

DM: Yeah, certainly. Um… this store over here – the gem cutter? They work with your guild on the regular.

PC 1: (to the guard) My good man, I am seeking a traveler who may  have come this way with a merchant caravan. Have any wagons reached the village in the last day or two?

DM: (Gruff voice) Why, yes, three came in a couple days ago, from Delfindor.

PC 2: While in this shrine, can I commune with nature and see if there really is some corruption or negative influence affecting the area?

DM: Yes, a Nature check, please. (Chipper voice) It’s been hard these last six months since everything started turning strange. Wild growth in the mountains–like a whole summer passed in a tenday’s time. And then there’s the undead–

PC 5: Guys. Can we go find the dude we came here for? Maybe someone in the noisy inn knows something.

PC 3: I’d also like to find an alchemist or maybe an herbalist?

PC 1: We’re looking for a man who came in with those wagons. Any chance you’ve seen him or know where they’re staying?

Solution:  A place like a city or friendly settlement might feel like a lot of available options. For groups where this becomes a problem, consider if there’s an in-game reason to restrict those options until the primary story or quest is sorted out.  A town under siege because of some rogue “heroes” or a teeming horde of undead isn’t going to have shops open for business, nor are the town leaders going to take time to chat about the latest rumors of interest to the party.

As a positive spin, find a way to interact with the players in the downtime between sessions. While it may seem awkward to go back over “here’s what I wanted to do in town during the middle part of our group game session,” it’s infinitely better than destroying the ‘group’ part of game play.

I’ve had tons of fun working over instant messages or in later conversations sorting out with players what their character would do. These sidebar conversations, handled outside of game time, have created new plot hooks to weave into the main game, developed the characters’ motivations, advanced their stories, and provided opportunities for players to role-play who might not be as comfortable with it at the table in front of peers.

“My character does/doesn’t care about that.”

Some players are happy to let you know they’re not about whatever’s on the menu. On the one hand, if they’re really trying to role-play their character’s ideals and interests, this is good feedback. A party of chaotic neutral characters might not be interested in saving the princess from the evil demon for the Greater Good of the Kingdom and all that is Just and Right.

Conversely, a snippet of setting or information might look like a really interesting side quest to one of the players, if that’s a lead their character would pursue.

“There’s a shelf full of old tomes and parchments detailing magic rituals? Uh, guys, I know the orc warlock is going to sacrifice the villagers to open a portal to the Abyss, but… can we just hang out here for like a day while I thumb through all of this?”

“Look, near the wrecked wagon–a cry for help in the language of druids. And judging by the tracks, it was left by one of the goblins. Why does one of those creatures know Druidic? How strange. I’d like to find this goblin…”

Likewise, these reactions are great feedback for what to include when you do want to hook that player… and what to avoid if distractions are a problem.

Solution: First, be sure to take these things into account when devising how your PCs get quests. Not everyone is a do-gooder out to save the world… similarly not all characters need a bag of gold jangled before their eyes to gain their assistance.

Place the individualized hooks where a distraction won’t matter. Sure, it might make sense that all the books full of magic are in the library the players find early on as they explore the castle…

But why not have large empty spaces among the books where it’s clear that a significant number of tomes have been carried off? Perhaps even a note from the big bad evil guy’s magic-user sidekick, explaining, “I borrowed these and brought them downstairs to my study. I think these are the key to opening a rift between our world and the realm of our masters…”

Now the distraction points the interested player and the party toward the confrontation you’ve already planned.

Perhaps the sight of a crude message in Druidic would be better placed at the opening of a goblin lair, to create questions and unique twists where the players already are instead of offering a detour from where you’re hoping they’ll go.

All Aboard? or All a-bored?

The DM has a huge role to play in keeping things moving smoothly, and illusion of choice is a great tool in the toolbox.

It’s awesome to create that “sandbox” feel of a living world where something could be happening anywhere the players go. However, in creating such a setting, a DM can get overly focused on the geography and current state of the parts the players will see.

I prepared an encounter with a band of orcs… but they decided to take the road south instead of east to where the orcs actually are…

The players wanted to get information about what the zealots are planning, but the leaders of that sect aren’t located in this part of town…

In a recent session, I made the mistake of focusing heavily on the map I’d created of a settlement. As one of the players sought out contacts and information, he ended up getting sent back-and-forth across town because that’s where those people and places are. (After all, it’s on the map.)

It’s great to know what exists where in the setting, but a rigid approach can lead to the DM getting frustrated because the players turned down the wrong tunnel or traveled to “the wrong spot” when literally anywhere can be the right spot.

Solution: The hated part about railroading is when it looks like there is no other option or choice but forward in an undesirable direction. “The tunnel is a one-way path, and oh you want to go back up and out? Well you can’t because the tunnel collapsed behind you.”

Having options such as branching tunnels or different locations of interest in the region gives the players a sense of agency. “I want to turn left instead of heading deeper into the Underdark” is a choice.

But as the DM, you control the outcome of the choice. Whether they turn left, turn right, or go straight, they can still find their way to the encounter you have planned or receive the clues that they need to advance the story. Whether they go east to the forest or west to the mountains, they can still encounter the band of bad guys who happen to have items of value or plot hooks to move things along.

This isn’t so much “railroading” as it is teleporting a destination to the end of whatever tracks the players are on. (Okay, yeah, that’s railroading, but it can serve a purpose of keeping the game moving.)

One method I used in the past was to have short episodes or level-appropriate encounter settings prepared in advance — an orc camp, a bandit fort, a small drake’s underground lair. If it became obvious that the players weren’t heading the direction I’d assumed, or going after whatever “main” storyline I had prepped, these plug-and-play encounters could easily drop into the session without any significant disconnect or lengthy explanation.

I think of games like Skyrim. The beauty of it is that after the initial tutorial quest, you reach a road you can follow to the next main quest… or you can turn left and wander into the wilds. All throughout the world, you find sites and encounters, people up to no good or monsters in search of prey. It seems like a living world where other creatures are doing their thing whenever you’re not there. But each of these settings has its own segment of story or plot that triggers once you enter.

Fourth Edition had a book called Dungeon Delve which basically served this purpose – several pre-made sites and dungeons that could easily slide into an ongoing campaign when the DM doesn’t have a ton of time to prep something or when the PCs decide to go an unexpected direction.

Next Stop: Fun

For experienced gamers, it’s probably clear that the “collaborative” part of collaborative storytelling means the PCs should be somewhat willing to go along with the adventure provided. Most groups have no problems seeing some of the possible options and choosing which to pursue. For those, railroading is unnecessary and probably detrimental.

But if players seem confused about where to go or what to do, maybe a few tracks concealed beneath the mechanics of the game would help guide the players along toward the fun everyone seeks.

D&D 5th Ed: A Resurgence of Imagination

I quite possibly squealed with glee when I saw the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Player’s Handbook show up at our local base exchange book store. That meant they should carry the other books when those are published.

It's here!
It’s here!

I know there’s Amazon, but I still like picking up a physical thing and looking at it before deciding to plunk down my card or cash.

Some of my best-viewed blog posts are about 5th edition. It’s perhaps a trick of the title I chose; certain kinds of players go looking for ideas on how to build the “best” character to “win” at the game, so they’ll search online to see what combinations and tricks others have found within the rules to make (arguably) overpowered characters.

I suppose it’s the D&D version of human growth hormone, and it’s not banned… just frowned upon by some.

Leaving for a deployment plus NaNoWriMo kept me from focusing on setting up the long-awaited game for my family, let alone an actual group of people. But what D&D 5th Edition is doing well is just that: bringing groups of people back together.

Sure, your tabletop group today might bring along their tablets or iPhones for dice apps and fast tracking of information related to the game. The tabletop might even be virtual.

But people are connecting once again, telling stories together, and exploring that wonderful space between our ears. Some fear that in our digital, always-connected, everything-visualized world, there’s little room for imagination and wonder.

Thankfully I find these fears unfounded. My kids play with Legos and bring me their latest creations constantly. They also play Minecraft on the iPad or Xbox. But again, they often show off their wild palaces, deep caverns, and unique structures. They’re exercising and expressing their imagination with ease.

While I don’t fear for them in this area, I do want to encourage them–and their friends–and create spaces for their minds to play in. Because we have that ability to conceive of things beyond ourselves… beyond even the bounds of what we’ve seen or experienced before… beyond what actually exists and into what could.

Maybe that’s not for everyone. Whether the subject is video games, RPGs, or even TV shows and written fiction, I know I’ve heard the judgmental “I don’t waste my time thinking about things that aren’t real.”

How boring.

This article sums it up really well, even if the URL appears to be about something completely different (and super gross):

The awesome glory that is Dungeons and Dragons

Forced Extended Rest

I saw this on the shelves of our local bookstore yesterday.

Urge to spend... rising... RISING...
Urge to spend… rising… RISING…

My PHB and copy of Hoard are in the mail, ordered from Amazon a couple days ago. It has to make the long trip across the Pacific to reach my mailbox, which usually takes about a week.

In addition to the two new books, I’ve ordered the set of minis that go along with the Starter Set. Hopefully, once all has arrived, I can sit down on a Saturday with my in-home natural D&D party (my wife and three kids old enough to understand the rules) to get a feel for 5E.

So for now, I impatiently wait.

Starting an Adventure

After reading through the Rulebook and looking over the pre-made character sheets, I dug into the adventure booklet provided with the new D&D Starter Set.

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Some background info:

I recently moved overseas for my job in the military, and all my household goods are ready to be delivered to my house. I have a trunk full of all my RPG materials, including several piles of miniatures I used for 4E campaigns.

I feel like I could reach into that trunk (once it arrives) and dump the minis out on the table, because this adventure has a little bit of everything.

It’s really not that bad. There are 27 entries in the “Monsters” Appendix, and at least one of them is a guy who’s supposed to be on your side. (If you end up fighting the NPC you were sent to rescue, then something has gone horribly wrong with your players’ decision-making processes.)

I did glance through descriptions of some of the different caverns and off-shoot rooms in the major adventure areas, and I found it odd to discover that one room would have some zombies, the next a flameskull, the next ochre jellies, and then a doppelganger running around causing mayhem.

I get it. They’re sprinkling a little of everything in, because maybe that gets them a repeat customer, and maybe that tells the DM what the players at a specific table are most interested in. Still, it feels like a jumble of monsters conveniently sharing the same cave complex for no other reason than “Hey, we could toss in some of these…”

That’s the overall impression I came away with. But there were some specifics that caught my eye and made me smile.

First, the intro explains a bit about taking on the mantle of DM. Some key phrases I’m glad to see: “The rules are a tool to help you have a good time. The rules aren’t in charge.”

Suck it, rules lawyers.

In fact, here’s a pic of “Rules to Game By” from page 2:

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The adventure starts with the PCs escorting a wagon of supplies to the central town. They come upon a goblin ambush to start out with an easy combat. The last goblin attempts to flee, and the previous victims are NPCs the characters are supposed to have a connection to. So this discovery and event inevitably leads down a trail to a goblin cave hideout.

I said in a post about combat that there is no mention of squares or emphasis on miniatures and tile/grid maps. The adventure leaves the option open by providing a grid map of the hideout, while making no effort to mandate a certain style of combat or play. The map is clearly provided to give the DM an idea of where things are. If it gets blown up and printed out, or doodled onto a grid map, great. If not, that’s fine too.

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Each room is described in plenty of detail and offers interesting options other than “this room contains five bags of hit-points you can beat down for XP.” The writers assume you might be a new DM, so they provide useful tidbits and reminders along the way, such as “Check to see if any of the characters or monsters are surprised when combat starts. Do this by looking at passive perception…” with an explanation of how the rules work, or at least a reference to the applicable rulebook section.

Part 1 is intended to get the players past level 2, and there is a helpful reminder just in case.

Part 2 puts the heroes into the central town, with a host of NPCs and potential side quests as they try to learn more about the Big Bad Evil Guy. There’s a handy explanation for new DMs about role-playing NPCs (don’t try to wow your players with your acting skills, do try to get into the head of the particular NPC and think about what that person might care about, etc.).

Potential threats and locations of interest are all thoroughly explained. Part 2 should get the players to level 3.

Part 3 involves a variety of leads and inquiries to learn more about the main villain and his plan. There’s a handy explanation for rules using the overland map provided earlier in the book, along with suggested description to make the journey interesting. This section also includes everyone’s favorite, the Random Encounter Table!

There are a few locations described for the purpose of roleplaying social interaction (or as much social interaction as you get from trying to get answers from a banshee). While these can conceivably degenerate into fight scenes, the idea is for this to be more talking than punching. Again, this serves the purpose of introducing concepts, like “Perhaps the Mage with the zombies would be willing to strike a deal” instead of “Kill every living thing we encounter.”

The leads eventually bring the heroes to Cragmaw Castle, which (once explored, and once its inhabitants are defeated) will point them to the location of the Big Bad’s lair. Again, this all captures the idea of a sandbox. There are several locations available and several branching decision paths open to the players. Some areas may not be visited because they’re not necessary.

All this kind of goes without saying, because of course that’s what D&D is about. But my point for including it is to show that the writers took the time to ensure there is a robust set of options available for new players and/or DMs.

By the time the Big Bad is defeated, the players should be level 5. All the levelling information and perks are already printed out on the back of the pre-made sheets, so there’s no painful delay while everyone figures out their options and upgrades their sheet.

Besides the Monsters appendix, there is also an appendix for all the magic items the players might potentially encounter.
Finally, the back cover of the Adventure provides a Rules Index, pointing to appropriate pages in the Rulebook. Perfect for the new DM who is put on the spot to answer a player’s question, “How does it work if I want to try to Persuade?” or “What does it mean if the Ogre smashed me in the face and dropped me to 0 hit points?”

All in all, this looks pretty slick and well-prepared for a group of 4-5 players. I’m excited about the Starter, for the low cost I paid for it.

I’m not sure this gets me signed up for a $50 price tag for each of the core books once those come out later this year. When I get home and have time to give this a shot with my wife and kids, that answer will become more clear.

But for now, the set accomplishes its stated purpose. It gets me eager to gather a group, set the stage, and roll some dice. I want to get started playing some D&D (again).

I hope this post and the others help if you’re on the fence about looking at a new edition. If you get the starter, what’s your take on it? If you’re not getting the starter, do you like what you saw here? Let me know your thoughts in a comment.

Adventuring and Spellcasting in 5E

Continuing my read-through and thoughts on the D&D Starter Set, this post covers Chapters 3 and 4 (and the appendix) of the Starter Set Rulebook.

Chapter 3: Adventuring feels to me like the Miscellaneous segment of the book. It covers important rules, of course, but they’re just a mash-up of everything not Spells, Introduction, or Combat. You get a description of special movement situations (long jump, high jump, climbing rules, that kind of thing), a break-out of short vs. long rest and how the characters benefit, a brief discussion of rewards, and then a few pages of specifics on gear the characters might need to purchase with the wealth they gather over the course of the game.

Can I just say electrum pieces and their value at 5 silver pieces annoys the crap out of me? If everything else is going to be based around a 1:10 ratio, why make an unnecessary complication? But whatever, I digress (since magically I can decide that my game world has no such thing as an electrum piece).

All the basic weapons, armor types, and adventuring gear gets listed along with some common expenses like food, drink, and lodging. Weapons give a pleasant variety of options; the keyword versatile remains, allowing a one-hand weapon to be used with two hands, improving damage slightly. Finesse is the term for a weapon a character can used based on Strength or Dexterity, so if you want that Zorro-style masked fighter hero wielding a rapier, it’s a viable option.

The entry for “Oil (flask)” kindly lays out the rules for using a flask of oil as a thrown weapon or dousing a nearby foe, since it seemed every group I’ve run with had a player who had to try that at least once.

And there is even an entry for playing cards. Yes, it assures the reader “if you are proficient with playing cards, you can add your proficiency bonus to ability checks you make to play a game with them.” Or you can just go play cards with someone else because this is Dungeons & Dragons, which is designed to be played as a group where everyone has fun, not “Chaotic Neutral Rogue With a Gambling Habit”

…because it’s always the chaotic neutral rogue…

And for the DM who loves to force players to keep track of things, there are two entries for rope: Rope, hempen (50 feet), and Rope, silk (50 feet).

“Sorry, but don’t you only have 37 feet of rope left since you tied up the goblins during the last session? You can’t climb down the 50 foot chasm. Go back to town.”

Ugh.

Chapter 4: Spellcasting got me excited again. Chapter 3 was the pile of plain steamed vegetables on the plate; necessary and good for you, but bleh! The chapter on spells is the delicious cake Mom brings out as a reward for finishing dinner.

(Disclaimer: I’m 37, and I’m married with four kids of my own. I’m so not living in my parents’ basement playing D&D with my unemployed friends. Death to stereotypes!)

The chapter starts out with a primer on everything your magic user needs to know about casting a spell. I particularly like the breakout on components needed. A spell may have a verbal component (words the character must say), a somatic component (gestures the character must make), or a material component (reagents needed for success). More likely, it’s a combination of two or all three.

So if a character’s arms are bound, somatic spellcasting is out of the question. If the wizard’s component pouch is taken, material-based spells are going to be problematic. Yes, this sort of thing is in 4th Edition, particularly for rituals. But I don’t remember it being so clearly laid out as it is here. (Maybe that’s why 4E gets ridiculed as being too much like World of Warcraft, where all my mage needs me to do to cast spells is to roll my face on the keyboard.)

Clerics have 28 spell options in this starter. Wizards have 30. There’s plenty of room for creating the desired style of magic-user instead of a cookie-cutter wizard. The level 1 wizard knows 6 spells in his/her spellbook, and can prepare 4 of them, but only has 2 “spell slots” to utilize. Clerics are similarly structured in how they can use magic.

While 5E does put restrictions on the number of spells available to the character between long rests, it also rectifies the old problem of the wizard with no spells left, trying to hit creatures with a 1d4-2 dmg dagger stab. Each class has at least one offensive cantrip, an “at-will” spell to use the 4E terminology, that the character can cast repeatedly to deal some damage.

Spells once again have spell levels which are completely separate from the level of the caster. It takes a level 5 wizard to cast level 3 spells, and he/she only gets 2 of those level 3 spell slots between long rests. There’s some strategy to spell slots, too; a level 1 spell cast from a level 3 slot gains significant power and damage, so it might be a better bet than a giant fireball.

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”I cast Magic Missile at the darkness… from a level 3 slot! Boom! What!”

The almost 60 spells give a wide variety of effects, and plenty have no combat application. “Charm Person” in particular is one I can’t wait to see crafty players employ, even though I know it will shatter any devious DM chicanery I have planned. I picture “Command” being used to great monster detriment as well.

And if your cleric leans a little Evil, there’s the 1st level necromantic spell “Inflict Wounds” to capture the idea of a touch of death. (I simply must have a dark cleric-style villainness with a kiss of death… what DM doesn’t want to slam 3d10 necrotic damage into a player’s face?)

Finally, the Appendix lists a number of mostly impairment conditions frequently encountered in D&D, like blinded, deafened, petrified, prone, stunned, and so on. It’s on the back cover of the book, so while it’s no DM screen, it’s a handy reference tool for DM and players alike to know what effects mean.

All in all, the Starter Set Rulebook does its job and gets a DM (and hopefully the players) ready for the more important part: the adventure itself!

The included adventure, Lost Mine of Phandelver, will be the focus of my next post.

How to Play and Combat

I started digging into my delicious Starter Set this morning.

This has been sitting in my flight bag for a day or two. Time to get started (har har) with 5th ed!
This has been sitting in my flight bag for a day or two. Time to get started (har har) with 5th ed!

I’m reading through and noting what sticks out to me based on my 4th edition experiences. When I notice what seems like a change, someone may say, “Well in 4th edition DMG page 125 the same sort of rule is clearly written there.” If that’s the case, great, chalk it up to inattention to detail. But this is just my first-read experience and captures what catches my eye.

Chapter 1: How to Play gives you the standard explanation of “What is D&D?” It covers the basics about checks, and how abilities, skills, proficiencies, and saving throws all come into play when rolling dice to determine an outcome.

The skills seemed like a decent set. Nothing seemed missing. Some (Bluff, Diplomacy) are refined and given names and examples with wider applications (Deception, Persuasion). I like Investigation as a concept – putting together the pieces and clues, gathering intel of a sort. It seemed like that always fell under Perception in 4th ed, which is kind of dumb. Perception sees things that might be otherwise easy to miss. Investigation sees things and figures out the details that others might miss. To use examples from the book, Perception sees the orcs hiding in ambush along the road. Investigation sees the wounds dealt to the ambush victims and figures out it was probably a band of orcs.

Animal Handling always makes me chuckle. It has uses, I’m sure, but I can’t stop picturing a pink-haired Druid character named Fluttershy.

One interesting change for 5th edition is the Advantage / Disadvantage system. In either case, you roll two d20s when you make a check. If you have an advantage, you take the higher of the two. If you have a disadvantage, you take the lower. I’m curious how this will play out in a group. Maybe it does away with some of the “+5 for this, -3 for that, but I have combat advantage so +2, and this is my quarry so I have that one feat that gives me another +2…”

I have advantage. I roll two dice and take the better number. Simple. Done.

I can see some potential flaws, though. For example if you’re fighting some monsters in darkness, does it turn into a bunch of flailing around? I imagine everyone would get a lot of low rolls. Then again, if everyone shares the same disadvantage, maybe it’s prudent to eliminate that from the equation and only take other disadvantages into account. I didn’t see that stated explicitly, so I imagine that might be my first house rule to reduce rolling and wasted time.

Filed this under “We’ll see…”

Moving on.

Chapter 2: Combat contains one noteworthy difference from 4E: language involving maps and squares doesn’t appear in the rulebook. Maybe that’s an “advanced” option they’ll incorporate later (because I’m sure Wizards of the Coast wants to sell us some map packs and such), or maybe they know that describing everything in # feet gives the DM and players enough to effectively utilize maps.

But this does inherently free up groups to use things like simple description or generic drawings on whiteboards or paper to run combat without counting out squares or laying down rulers for line of sight determinations.

Could you do that in 4E? Sure, but it seemed pretty obvious that wasn’t what they were pushing for. Now tiles, maps, and minis are an available option instead of the default.

First off, the Combat chapter lists available actions you can take on your turn. Everyone can take a move and an action. I’m liking some of the updated choices: You can take a Disengage action to avoid provoking opportunity attacks when you move; you can take a Dodge action to give attackers a disadvantage against you (as well as permit Dex saving throws with advantage); you can Help another creature in completing a task, meaning you give them an advantage to do the stated thing so long as they attempt it before the start of your next turn.

Opportunity attacks count as a “reaction” – and you only get one reaction per turn. So there’s no more taking five opportunity attacks in a turn as I’ve seen sometimes argued in 4th edition.

Also, everybody gets critical hits on a roll of 20, and everyone misses on a 1. Sauce for the goose (player characters) is sauce for the gander (monsters). And crits look decidedly deadly… deadlier I suppose is the correct term.

Instead of max damage for the base attack, you roll any damage die twice and add it all together. So a rogue with Sneak Attack rolls those dice twice too.

A glance at the character sheet for the pre-made rogue tells me at level 5, they roll 3d6 for Sneak Attack. Let’s assume 1d4 for a dagger, 3d6 for a sneak attack. A successful crit sneak attack nets you 2d4 plus a whopping 6d6 damage just from dice rolls with no other modifiers? Egad.

Rogue carves the Kobold for infinity damage, exploding it like a blood sausage.

At least a fighter gets a crit on 19 or 20. But yeah… Sneak Attack crits look sick and dare I say it, broken. Another thing I look forward to seeing fleshed out when I get to play this with a group…

Next post – Chapter 3: Adventuring and Chapter 4: Spellcasting

Look What Came in the Mail

Ok, to be fair, I got this a couple days ago. I figured it might be nice reading material on my current business trip.

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I started working my way through the 120 page PDF that Wizards released a month or two ago… and free is always a nice price to pay for a new edition. But Amazon had the starter set at a ridiculously low price, so I figured $12 isn’t too rich an investment to check out 5th Ed.

This really does strike me as a “starter” – something I’d use to introduce new players to D&D or to share with some of my RPG-phobic Christian friends to show them “This isn’t really a pact with Satan, I promise.”

The premade character sheets give the player an idea of what this character is about, with a personal goal that fits with the adventure and a description of how the individual’s alignment looks in action. Since it’s a starter set, the character progression is mapped out on the back of the sheet with what perks and abilities each gains at each level. No 4th Ed scrounging through all the Player’s Handbooks for the just-right complement of powers and abilities.

The party presented is made up of some traditional fantasy faire along with the four core D&D classes: the elf wizard, the halfling rogue, two human fighters (one a noble, one a commoner), and a dwarf cleric.

Needless to say, I have some fun reading on my hands. Might be just what the DM ordered for my wife and kidlets when I get back home…

Just Say "Yes"

It’s time for Tabletop Tuesday!

Roll for Imagination
Roll for initiative to see if you can keep up with your players’ insane ideas.

“What do you want to do?”

“I want to leapfrog over the rogue and flip through the air to land next to the goblin and smash his face with my hammer.”

“…”

“I want to grab hold of this powerful conduit of magical energy while casting a spell at the incoming ranks of undead, in the hopes that maybe it will, like, amp up my powers… or something?”

“…….”

What do you do when your players come up with unique plans and crazy ideas?

Just say “Yes!”

Tabletop Role-Playing is all about collaborative storytelling. It’s all about the characters, the heroes of the story. “Actions speak louder than words,” so when the players come up with unexpected methods to deal with conflict and trouble, that’s an important part of defining those characters for the story you’re all telling.

Sometimes this takes a little bit of stretching, a little imagination to figure out “How do we make this work?” It can be challenging to come up with a solution on the spot, but that gives the DM more practice being flexible.

Someone wants to jump on an enemy and bite at them, Mike Tyson style? Say yes.

Someone suggests setting the whole outpost on fire in order to gain a short-term advantage? Go for it.

Someone decides to activate a mysterious magic device in an attempt to stop a powerful foe? Why not!

Discrepancy
Page 183 of the Player’s Manual clearly defines Diplomacy, but you say in your post that you allowed your group to use it in a fight… so… can you clear up the obvious discrepancy?

Psst, to all the rules lawyers, you and I both know this is completely unacceptable. Stick with me for a bit. If nothing else, they just handed you a golden ticket as the DM.

Perhaps, “Oops, now the whole building is burning down, and you must race to rescue the innocent captives / recover the precious artifacts before it collapses on your heads.”

Or several sessions later, “Remember when you activated that device in order to destroy that elite monster? Yeah, you also set off a beacon that attracted the attention of an incomprehensible alien race that is now making their way to your realm. Better get ready!”

Or, “Hey, that sounds cool. Sure, you gnaw the guy’s face.” And everyone in that region now knows what this hero is willing to do in order to win.

I recall a story from a game designer recounting a session with his son. At the end of the fight, his son says, “My character goes to the statue near the altar and discovers a hidden treasure. He tries to open it, but it has a trap.” The kid starts alternate-DMing for a moment. And the game designer father had the good sense in the moment to just go with it.

The party ends up with a little extra gold, the kid’s character gets poisoned and needs to heal more than he did before, and everyone moves on with the rest of the session. But that moment told the child, “This is your game too. This is your world. Let’s explore it together.”

Just say “yes.” Your games will be better for it.

Okay… rules lawyers, it’s time for a very important caveat.

Are there limits to this suggestion? …Yes. (See what I did there?)

“Is there a way that I can use diplomacy to leap across the chasm and then maybe do an endurance check in order to disarm the trap?”

No. No, there’s absolutely not a way.

Every DM has probably had a player who gets one exceptional skill, and then tries to use it every round. “Can I use my Dungeoneering to fight the goblin? Can I use my Dungeoneering to forage for food in the sky temple? Can I use my Dungeoneering to understand complex magic and recall a historic religious ritual that will help us spot the hidden treasure? I do have a really high Dungeoneering score…”

But your players never want to hear “No.”  So what do you do?

You want your default inclination to be “Yes” so long as it makes sense.

Take advantage of that collaborative aspect of the tabletop game. Make them explain how exactly their favorite go-to skill is going to help in this particular situation. You give them the impression you’re willing to go along as long as they can come up with a convincing answer. You show them you’re willing to bend a bit for the sake of story without completely breaking the game or common sense. You put the ball back in their court and ask how it’s supposed to go from there.

Your average tabletop player is probably going to be reasonable and admit that their idea is beyond the scope of reason. If not, then once again go collaborative. Have a majority vote from your players or invite suggestions on how to make it work. And of course, as the DM you have the ultimate power to conclude that there’s no reasonable way to agree to the crazy plan. So, sometimes say, “No.”

But only if absolutely necessary.

Cooperative Storytelling

Cooperative Storytelling

This isn’t the first time I’ve posted about tabletop role-playing, but it’s the first Tabletop Tuesday post. I hope to funnel all the related topics into this weekly category: reviews of various products, ideas for how to add to your game on the cheap, thoughts about how to run a group, or accounts of silly thing my players have done in game.

Now with 100% less capes!
Write your own story, with friends

Yet for many, the idea of tabletop role-playing is quite a mystery. Some of us have probably heard a lot about the evils of games like Dungeons and Dragons, and perhaps we’ve seen groups of young (or not so young) people dressing up and playing live action games in local parks. Even my wife was worried before her first time playing a tabletop RPG.

“I don’t have to wear a cape, do I?”

The extent of role-playing is defined by the group. No one has to quote Harry Potter terms or wave a stick around yelling “You shall not pass!” If the players are open to that, more power to them. But that’s not what the games are about.

Tabletop games are all about a group of people telling a story together.

It’s not much different from the lure of major sports. We watch men and women perform challenging but ultimately useless feats of athletic skill, and we get drawn into all the rivalries and back-story of our favorite teams and superstars. No one really cares if a guy can put a ball into a hoop suspended up in the air, or if someone can hit a little white ball with a stick.

No, we get into the stories.

Will so-and-so ever lead his team to victory? Maybe this is his year to shine. Can that player overcome his public indiscretions, or will his performance on the field suffer? Will Team A triumph over Team B this year, since Team B crushed them in the finals last season?

We even go so far as to imagine “what if” with sports. What if this great player from this team and that great player from that team were actually on the same team? What if I took these five players I really like, and put them on the same team? How would they compare against other people’s choices? And thus we have Fantasy sports, so-called D&D for Jocks.

We are drawn to the characters, the conflicts, the victories and the failures. That’s ultimately what tabletop RPGs are about. You’re not merely reading a book or watching a movie, waiting for the next twist, wondering when the mystery will be explained or the hidden villain revealed. You’re not trying to comprehend and relate to whatever main character you’ve been given.

You’re helping write the plotline for a character of your choosing.

Beyond that, tabletop gaming is a social activity with friends gathering (usually) in the same place. It’s a creative activity, allowing players the chance to think outside their daily norm and even act a part. It’s a strategic activity, with rules and tactics that players can use to their advantage, like a chess game with dice. When it works out, tabletop gaming can be a great diversion, just like any hobby.

And, no, you don’t have to wear a cape.