Tag Archives: RPG

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.

The Trap of D&D

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.

As part of my “intense training” I cast Level 2 Bag of Cheetos, Level 5 Mountain Dew, and Level 8 Vanishing Money… just a few more rulebooks and miniatures… that’s all I need…

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.

 

Death House – an intro to 5E Ravenloft

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.

My new favorite D&D book

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.

The kids in need of rescue, who send the PCs into the adventure

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.

Tahwaria

My four year old has a new favorite topic of conversation… one shared with my nine year old and my teenage son: Terraria. (Or Tahwaria, as the four year old says it so very often.)

  
For the uninitiated, it’s a game available on PC, on consoles like XBox 360 and PS4, and on mobile devices like Kindle and iPad… and probably some others. 

So, discussions with our little Dude now center around important Terraria facts: 

Do you know about Wepis? (Lepus)
He is BIG. And he is a BOSS. And to fight him you need a subishis wooking egg. (suspicious looking egg)
His face looks funny. But he can’t kill me though. WAIT. WHAT? I DIED.

Armed with a wooden sword, ax, and pickaxe, your tiny character lands in a sprawling world full of dangerous beasties. You build a home for the character that serves as your guide, and then explore and expand from there. Finding and defeating powerful boss monsters unlocks new aspects to the game along with more assistance from the folks who want to “settle down” in your growing complex of houses. There’s a definite RPG side to the game as you find or craft better armor and more powerful melee, ranged, and magical weapons.

Like a two-dimensional Minecraft, this game usually encourages creativity and constructive cooperation among my kids and their friends. My four year old can play around and build things or dig for shiny metals. My nine year old can fight enemies and explore the dangers of the world. And my fourteen year old coordinates with his friends to take down the massive world boss monsters in order to unlock new types of materials. There’s also the option to turn on player-vs-player and fight it out with your frenemies.

The game isn’t perfect. A recent update or perhaps an inherent glitch caused the loss of my character and a few weeks’ worth of progress. Cloud saving might have prevented that, but some reviews on the iTunes Store implied that even cloud saved characters can sometimes encounter similar problems. Device issues can also cause trouble. The Kindle my nine year old uses somehow purged itself of all data, and he lost everything he’d done. 

That said, the game is addicting and interesting enough that both he and I find ourselves starting over, lamenting what was lost but enjoying building a new world nonetheless.

The kids also play with me sometimes, mocking my lack of progress and my general noob status. “Oh, you’re making items and armor out of iron? That’s cute. I barely remember ever needing that. Did I show you my rocket launcher, my space armor, and my machine gun?”

One day soon, I’ll catch up to them. I just need to find some more tungsten ore for that sword I want to make…

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

D&D 5E: Character Creation

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.

It's here!
It’s here!

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:

Guild Artisan:
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 roll for 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.

The last 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.

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.

Back to Albion Again

A couple months ago, my family moved (back) overseas to Okinawa, Japan. When my XBox arrived with some of our belongings, I looked for a few favorite games. I was working my way through the high-definition Anniversary edition of Fable, and I kept finding myself looking for features that were missing from the game.
There’d be something I wanted to purchase, and I’d think, “I need some quick money. Maybe I can pour drinks in the tavern or chop some wood. Where’s the place to do odd jobs to earn money?”
Then I’d remember: that’s in Fable II.
This sparked a madness in me, and I wanted to play Fable II right then. Thankfully, XBox Live has Games On Demand, where you can purchase and download a bunch of old games. Fable II is on the list.
But for some reason, it simply would not download. The purchase would not go through. I kept getting an odd error code.
A quick Google search informed me that – for whatever reason – Fable II was not authorized to be sold online in Japan. It’s no worse than Fable III (not by a long shot) or the original game. So for a few months, I waited for the rest of our belongings, hoping I still had the game and, if so, that it survived the journey.
I finished off my playthrough of Fable Anniversary edition last weekend – playing a completely evil character, as you can get things done quicker when pesky morals don’t stand in your way. I immediately got started on a new game of Fable II.
And happiness filled my addled gamer brain.

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Photo (obviously) taken from IGN

So, to refresh your memory or perhaps inspire a look at a great game you never played, why is Fable II so awesome?
Much of my argument assumes you’ve played and enjoyed the original Fable. If not, here’s a synopsis:
The series is about the consequences of your hero’s moral choices. The world changes and characters respond differently based on whether you choose noble deeds or wicked misdeeds. Your appearance shifts over time the more you go to one extreme or the other. There’s a fun-enough swords-‘n’-sorcery fantasy storyline that takes you from a nobody to shaping the destiny of the world, but you almost always have a choice to make about how you get there.
If you played Fable, Fable II widens your exploration options dramatically. You can vault over obstacles, jump off of ledges, dive into pools and swim across lakes. The world feels far more free to explore.
The magic system brings some finesse to its controls. Every spell has two options, a targeted effect when you move a directional stick towards a foe, or an area-of-effect around your character when you leave the stick centered. Lightning isn’t just a bolt you shoot at some unfortunate foe; leave the stick centered and it becomes a storm that damages every foe in range around you. Force Push doesn’t just create a bubble that shoves everyone away from you; push your stick toward a target, and you smack a single foe with a blast of power.
Your options for defining your character’s virtues are expanded (slightly). Instead of a simple “good vs. evil” slider, you also get a “pure vs. corrupt” slider. The most obvious visual representation of this is your character’s pudgy or petite body. Right or wrong, a “corrupt” character does whatever they want, including eating pies and fattening meats. A “pure” character (whether good or evil) lives by a stricter set of rules , and thus doesn’t end up flabby.
Fable II advances the “history” of the kingdom into a light Steampunk vibe. There are mechanical creations. More importantly, this means guns are a thing in the game. It’s so satisfying to shoot (and potentially decapitate) some bandits with ranged zoom before they pose a threat. Plus, turret rifles and pistols! Multiple shots before you need to reload!
You can customize far more than Fable ever permitted. First, you can choose your hero’s gender, and both genders are well represented in the wardrobe available in game. Next, you find or purchase dyes that allow you to tweak your clothing’s primary and secondary colors in addition to your hair color. Makeup is another option, and it’s not just for the female Hero; the game incorporates some twisted makeup schemes similar to the Joker that are just fine for your male character.
There are often Jobs available for you to earn money by playing mini-games. Chop wood, forge blades, pour mugs of ale… the games are easy enough you can earn a good chunk of change when needed, and monotonous enough you won’t want to play forever.
I also love the story aspect of seeing the future of Albion. There are plenty of parts of the game that call to mind some of the original Fable’s locations. It’s interesting to learn what became of many of the my old Fable haunts in the 500 years between the two games.
Perhaps most important, it’s NOT Fable 3. The original Fable was an ambitious game that didn’t quite measure up to the amount of hype which preceded it.
(On the other hand, Fable 3 seems like a terrible object lesson in the pain of trying to manage a nation preparing for inevitable calamity. You either have to play as a tyrant who crushes the citizens in order to save the day, or you play the benevolent ruler who fails to prepare the kingdom for war and thus lets it fall into destruction.
No matter which path you take in Fable 3, you feel punished all along the way… which defeats the whole escapist (and FUN) aspect of playing a video game where you get to be the hero.)

Fable II is hands down the best game of the series. The fact I’m ranting about how much I love it several years after its release should make that clear.
Not surprisingly, when we received our household belongings, one of the first things I looked into was the case of XBox games. There right on the first page sat Fable II, as though subconsciously I knew years ago that I’d want to play that game again someday.
Me from a couple years ago was so very right.

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.