20 more trinkets

September 5th, 2014 by paul

5e's d100 starting trinkets are all very well, but after a few campaigns, you're guaranteed to roll repeats. I don't want too many characters starting with a "small, weightless stone block" or whatever.

It would be great to have a backup list of mysterious trinkets, so you could Cross Out and Write In as you used 'em. I'll start; leave more in the comments.

A tattoo that specifies the time and place of an unknown future appointment.
A padlock that can be opened by all keys except the one it comes with.
An architectural schematic of a vast baby.
A botany book filled with dangerous misinformation.
An order for your own execution.
A wooden coin on which is written a curse.
A membership card to an exclusive club.
A list of six names, including yours, with three crossed out.
An obsidian figure of a panther; it has absolutely no magic powers.
A map with several strange inaccuracies.
A badge from a forbidden order of fallen paladins.
A doll-sized sword of masterwork quality, useful as a razorblade.
A tiny scroll bearing nine unusual names.
The deed to a house in an underwater city.
The recipe for a Potion of Deafness.
A dragonchess piece with a hidden compartment: inside is a human fingerbone.
A flute; its out-of-tune notes can play no known song.
A moss-covered book written in Druidic characters.
A green copper tool with no obvious function.
A piece of amber containing an insect; the insect wears a tiny saddle and halter.

surprising PC demographics from the 5e backgrounds

September 1st, 2014 by paul

Let's assume that all PC backgrounds and traits are assigned randomly (there are 13 backgrounds so about 7.5% of PCs have each background).

conan book returnOut of every 1000 Player Characters:
15 are fire eaters. (d10 entertainer routines, of which you get 1d3) Makes sense that this number is so high, since every bad fantasy movie has at least one fire eater per crowd scene. Fire eating is apparently riveting entertainment in Fantasy Europe.
10 are librarians. (d8 sage specialty)
10 are blackmailers. (d8 criminal specialty) Blackmailers are not the most dashing of outlaws, and it's hard to reconcile them with heroic fantasy. Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to many D&D adventures inspired by the life of Charles Augustus Howell..
A whopping 19 are raised by wolves. (d8 outlander personality trait, of which you get two)
4 are guild blacksmiths. (d20 guild business) This might sound naiive, but I absurdly thought that a smith background would be MORE common among adventurers than a raised-by-wolves background. Obviously I was off by a factor of 5. That's why "Smith" is such a rare last name and "Wolfson" is so common.

a D&D player’s advice to DMs running mystery games

August 25th, 2014 by paul

Mike Shea has an interesting article about running mystery/investigation games. Running a mystery game is famously difficult, and Mike has a lot of great advice: don't kill player involvement by dead-ending all their efforts. Don't slavishly follow the letter of the module. Don't bury the clues. And finally, change the mystery as needed.

If PCs seem to be spending all of their time in one line of investigation while the real answer lies somewhere completely different, we are well within our power and authority to move the clues. ... Maybe NPCs begin to learn things they hadn't known or the map is hidden in a completely different part of the mansion after all.

This last piece of DM advice is something which I've done many times before, and which makes total sense to me as a DM, but I'd like to add a note of caution as a player.

For a DM, it's just good sense to rewrite the story; the players need never know, and everyone ends up having a better time. But as a player, I find myself quixotically kicking against this kind of good sense. As a player, I don't want to solve a mystery because the DM moved the clues under my nose. On the other hand, I don't want to waste a lot of time because the DM put the clues in the wrong place, either.

Here's the thing: from my player's perspective, sometimes it's OK to move the clues and sometimes it's not. Here's my advice as a D&D player to DMs running mystery games:

Don't let us players rewrite the mystery - unless our version is better

Even though you as the DM are constantly making up bits of the world for us, you are still capable of feeling suspension of disbelief yourself - and that's important to maintain. At its best, DMing feels like channeling a world with a reality of its own. If the murder took place in the conservatory, it took place in the conservatory, even if we're wasting our time investigating the billiard room - because, even though this statement sounds insane, "that's how it really happened." Once you've fixed something into the history of your game world, don't excise it lightly. As a player, I want the game world to have reality and weight to it. I want to make some good choices and some bad choices, and look back with hindsight and know the difference. As a player, I want to take your world seriously, so make sure you do too.

There's an exception to the "no rewrites" rule: one of us players might have a theory, or you might later come up with an idea, that's better than your original plan. Now's the time to rewrite history! The murder took place in the billiard room after all, because it makes more sense that way! Maybe I reminded you that Lord Wolfson loves to play billiards, so, now that you think of it, the billiards room would be a more logical place for the deadly confrontation. Retcon your story and change your plot, not for our convenience but because, now that you think of it, "that's how it really happened."

Honor our important choices, not our unimportant ones

Over the course of an investigation, PCs make a lot of significant choices. We might decide that the butler is on our side, and anyone who disagrees with the butler's testimony is clearly lying. We might gamble on a risky Intimidation attempt, which might anger a key suspect or elicit new clues. The paladin might even decide that it's dishonorable to read a gentleman's letters, and burn a lot of key evidence unread. As a DM, you should honor those big choices, even if they make the investigation much easier or harder than you expected.

On the other hand, we also make a lot of insignificant choices. If you ask us which guest bedroom we are searching, we might say, "Uuh... the first one." We might never visit the greenhouse because you forgot to mention to us that there's a greenhouse. These are non-choices. Feel free to move the clue from the third to the first guest bedroom, or from the greenhouse to the ballroom.

Don't figure out all the details beforehand

Let's say the manor has 20 rooms and there are three important clues. Do we poor players really have to grind our way through a search of up to 17 meaningless rooms before we find a clue?

Here's a reality-bending trick that doesn't get my player hackles up:

Leave a lot of investigation details vague. Maybe you've decided that the chambermaid has a clue. You don't need to key the chambermaid on the map. She might be in the second room we investigate, or the first, according to the dictates of pacing.

Maybe you haven't thought at all about what's in the stables, or what's in town. If we investigate the stables, or start interrogating every shop owner in town, you as DM have carte blanche to make up clues: the more clues the better. It's fine that these clues didn't exist until we looked for them, because you're not rewriting the mystery for us; you're just filling in blank spaces in the map. That's exactly what we expect from our DM.

So our group decides to search the stables, for which you prepared nothing. OK, you think, what's in the stables? Let's see, the victim arrived at the manor last night, so it makes sense that there's an extra horse in the stables. And the stablehand would have seen the victim, and fed the horse. What's in the saddlebags? Maybe a letter from Lord Wolfson to the victim? Maybe you roll a die to see whether that letter exists. Go ahead, you're the DM.

What's in town? Maybe we notice that the inn is called "The Wolf's Arms." "That must have some connection to Lord Wolfson," I say, and we start coming up with a theory implicating the landlord. But the landlord wasn't involved, and you as DM don't need to retroactively involve him. Sometimes we'll hit dead ends, and that's OK.

provide interesting dead ends

Just as not every dead end in a dungeon has a secret door, not every area in an investigation yields a clue. Sometimes there are areas that don't further the investigation.

But remember, you're the DM of a living world, not just a mystery puzzle. Every area in the world can be interesting, even the places that have nothing to do with the mystery.

If you're running a one-shot and trying to shepherd it to its conclusion by 10 PM, you might just want to say "You investigate the Wolf's Arms Inn and find nothing to connect it to the murder." But if you're running a long-term campaign with no time pressure, then offer us a chance at some interesting new decisions: a fight, a quest - even a new mystery. Hey, we might find the second mystery more engaging than the first.

This might seem like a lot of improv pressure at the game table. After spending hours developing a mystery adventure, you're supposed to come up with a new mystery, on the spot, in the, what, thirty seconds you have to think while we chatter about our crackpot innkeeper-did-it theory? Well, keep in mind you don't need to come up with a solution to a new mystery right away, just a premise. And don't worry, thirty seconds should be plenty of time.

To test this theory, I brought up the stopwatch feature on my phone. Let's say the PCs start poking around in the Wolf's Arms inn, which you haven't prepared at all. I'm giving myself 30 seconds to come up with and develop a new tavern-based mystery as far as I can. At the end of the 30 seconds, I'll write down what I come up with. I'll try to do this four or five times.

The innkeeper doesn't know anything about the murder, but..... three, two, one, go!

  • When lone foreigners come to the inn, the innkeeper invites them into the wine cellar, kills them, and pickles them in wine. When he has collected six pickled people, he ships them on a cart up north. Right before the PCs come in, the innkeeper spotted a potential victim in the common room.
  • The inn is filled with smuggler thugs, waiting to make a pickup of, say, silks. If the PCs come in with full bags of loot, they're likely to mistake the PCs for their contacts. Otherwise, they'll want to size the PCs up and figure out what their angle is.
  • The innkeeper is a vampire. The bartender is a brand-new vampire spawn just learning the ropes, and the innkeeper is parentally anxious about the bartender's fledgling abilities.
  • The inn is used for a Hellfire Club of sinister and decadent nobles, and there's a secret room filled with incriminating evidence. The innkeeper will act perfectly normal at first, but if the PCs seem too inquisitive on any subject, the innkeeper will assume that they're onto the club and get nervous.
  • One of the rooms has a ghost, so the innkeeper will claim that the inn is full even though the PCs can clearly count four rooms and only three NPC parties. One of the stable stalls is similarly off-limits, haunted with the ghost's spectral horse.

    OK, one thing I noticed from this exercise: in the first 10 seconds, I came up with a trite adventure hook - more of a trope than a mystery. Any twists were generated in the last 20 seconds. So while DMing down a dead end, tune out player chatter and give yourself the luxury of a full 30 seconds, not 10 seconds, to decide what's going on.

    By the way, this is a fun home game! Try it yourself, using a stopwatch and any of the following red herrings. Come up with the seed of an unrelated new adventure. 30 seconds each!

  • The innkeeper doesn't know anything about the murder, but...
  • The jeweler who bought the signet ring has never seen the victim before or since, but...
  • The town guards didn't investigate the screams at the manor house because...
  • Oops! The DM forgot to come up with an alibi for Lord Wolfson's wife. She was away from home the whole time because...
  • Uncanned Uneartha
          Variant rules for D&D

    5e: Not enough rituals

    August 22nd, 2014 by paul

    5e has a luxuriously complete spell list, and an absurdly small number of its spells have the ritual tag. Bards, clerics, and druids have over 100 spells each, and each of these classes has exactly 12 ritual spells - about 10%. Wizards, who have the biggest spell list at 213 spells, have 17 rituals, which is only 8% of their list. Sorcerers have four rituals. Warlock is the worst offender because it has a big class feature and invocation devoted to collecting ritual spells - but it's a trap. Of its four rituals, three are first level.

    The dearth of rituals makes me think that they're priced wrong. WOTC realized that their generous ritual rules (cast a spell free in ten minutes) led to abuses with too many spells. They pulled back and now only 10% of the spells are ritualizable.

    This compares unfavorably with my original hope for spells: every spell can be cast as a ritual!

    I think this dream is still possible if we tweak the cost. +10 minutes is clearly too low a cost. Money (as in 4e) is too high a cost. What about adding arbitrary restrictions instead of cost?

    As before, you can cast any known spell as a ritual, whether or not it's prepared, by adding 10 minutes. New rule: you can ritually cast a number of spell levels equal to your character level. This refreshes on a short or long rest. You can only ritually cast one spell of level 6 or higher per day.

    What do we do with the few official ritual-tag spells that WOTC thinks are safe, un-spammable, and OK to cast unlimited times a day? Let's let them be cast unlimited times without costing any ritual spell levels, as in the official rules.

    So how open is this to abuse? Not very, I think. Cast a Fireball as a ritual? Sure, useful for a few free lobs in slow-paced siege warfare. Cure Wounds as a ritual? Sure, it gives clerics a nice, limited apply-herbs thing to do out of combat. Wish as a ritual? Yeah, once a day. What about the fact that any spell is now open to ritual dabblers, like warlocks and users of the Ritual Caster feat? I'm fine with it. If a barbarian wants to spend a feat on Ritual Caster so he can cast Bear's Endurance or Fireball a few times a day, I'll allow it.

    D&D 5e: The Many Shapes of the Druid

    August 15th, 2014 by Rory

    Druids get right down to business in D&D 5e, gaining Wild Shape as an ability by level 2. Wild Shape is a really awesome ability in this edition with a ton of utility both in combat and in general exploration. Here are a few of the obvious perks:

    • Turn into any beast with of a certain CR or lower. Extremely versatile ability that is useful for blending in, getting into small spaces (think wild shaping into a mouse), and bringing force to bear in combat, among other applications.
    • Unlock ability to gain a fly speed or swim speed at higher levels.
    • Whole new set of hit points while in wild shape. You switch to use the hit points of whatever you transform into. If you take more damage than you have, you transform back at your previous hit points, minus any excess damage you took. So essentially the Druid can take a lot more damage than many of the other classes, which is a little crazy and borderline overpowered.
    • Can wild shape 2 times between short rests! Considering that you can stay in wild shape form for one or more hours, this is pretty generous.

    The Circle of the Moon sub-class really exemplifies this feature, gaining a number of abilities that makes their wild shaping stronger, more useful, and quite capable in combat. As they level, they can transform into higher level beasts, heal themselves by expending spell slots as a bonus action, treat their natural weapons as magical, and even transform into Elementals. They also can cast alter self at-will, but that's kind of its own thing.

    As combat is a bit easier to analyze than all the crazy stuff you can do with wild shape outside of combat, I thought it could be fun to take a look at some of the obvious choices for wild shaping throughout the levels. I'm focusing on the Circle of the Moon's options since they are the obvious choice if you want to really take advantage of this feature:

    Read the rest of this entry »

    D&D 5e 10th Level Bard Hack

    August 13th, 2014 by Rory

    I'm a big fan of the Bard in D&D 5e. Recently, while playing around with different builds, I discovered a pretty silly hack to make them a very powerful (arguably overpowered) choice for ranged combat by level 10. If you already know about Bards, feel free to scroll past my general overview to see how it works.

    However, for those who don't have the new PHB yet, here's a short list of some of the nice perks the Bard gets to give you a little background:

    • Full caster class: Bards get the same number of spells as Clerics and Wizards. This is nice because it gives them a core competency to build off of, something they lacked in 3.5 and previous editions, where the bard was okay at everything but not particularly good at anything.
    • Inspiration: In place of bard songs that all do wacky things and have always felt a little awkward to actually use, bards have inspiration dice. They can pass these to allies, who can use them to add the die as a bonus to attack rolls, ability checks, and saving throws. Sub classes allow them to be used in other ways, such as reducing an enemies attack roll, adding to AC, or adding to a damage roll.
    • Jack of all Trades: Super fun ability that gives bards half their proficiency bonus to skills they aren't proficient in. It's a great thematic ability, and it encourages Bard players to try things outside their character's normal areas of expertise.
    • Song of Rest: Grants extra healing when the Bard or allies regain hit points during a short rest.
    • Good Melee/Ranged Subclass: Bards get to choose from two options for subclasses. The College of Lore emphasizes the "jack of all trades" aspect of the bard, granting extra skills and extra cross class spells, along with some other very solid perks. However, I am more attracted to the College of Valor, which legitimately makes the Bard a solid melee or ranged combatant, granting proficiency with martial weapons, medium armor, and shields, along with a bonus attack at level 6 and a nice perk at 14 to allow casting a spell and making an attack as a bonus action. So this means by level 6, the Bard is basically on par (or close enough) with all the other melee/ranged classes, such as the Barbarian, Fighter, Ranger, Paladin, and Rogue.
    • Magical Secrets: The bard spell list is pretty focused. It has a lot of stuff you might expect from a bard: charms and enchantments, some utility spells, and good options for travel, along with a healthy mix of "fun" spells you'll certainly enjoy playing around with. It also sports healing spells, which are always going to be useful. However, at 10th level and again at 14 and 18, you get to choose two spells from ANY class to round out your list a bit. The only requirement is that the spell level is one you can cast. This is very cool. For example, you could pick up fireball (which can be cast at higher spell levels for more damage) to add a nice AOE spell to your list, since Bards don't normally have any.

    The "Hack" Explained

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    d&d worlds have orange suns

    July 30th, 2014 by paul

    This never comes up in D&D gameplay, but I have a theory that most D&D games take place under a sun that's dimmer and more orange than ours.

    17316-3This has to do with D&D's place in the Dying Earth sci-fi genre. D&D was largely inspired by Jack Vance, especially the Dying Earth stories, in which a far-future Earth lived its last days under a dying red sun. In this world, civilizations had risen and fallen millions of times, and there were ruins everywhere you looked.

    For contrast, look at our world. Spinning along merrily under a young yellow sun is our brand new civilization. We're the first Earthlings to surpass D&D's renaissance-level technology, and we've only got a few centuries of high technology under our belts. We're only a few thousand years removed from humanity's first mastery of bronze and iron.

    Your average D&D world is somewhere between our living and Vance's dying Earth. It's in a Renaissance-technology dark age, and it lives among the ruins of more magically and technologically advanced empires. Lots of them. Many campaigns have their own lore about human and humanoid empires, and lots of editions have hints of aeons where other creatures ruled the world - dragons, demons, giants, yuan-ti, aboleth, the Queen of Chaos, all in turn. Archaological sites are not rare. In fact, there's an undisturbed dungeon, a relic of a past age, just outside the PCs' starting town.

    Your average D&D world has been around for a while. It's possible that its best days are behind it. If you travel into its future for a few millenia, you'll get to Dark Sun's red-tinged wasteland. If you travel into the past? who knows, you might end up in d20 Modern, under a garish yellow sun.

    Why you shouldn’t torture the prisoners

    July 23rd, 2014 by paul

    Goblins: Interrogating goblins by torture seems to be creepily prevalent in D&D games. Anyway, it's not necessary, because goblins will always tell you everything when threatened with torture, no Intimidate check necessary. They'll mix in 20% malicious lies, but they'd do that under torture as well.

    Hobgoblins: Hobs will inform you of their name, rank, and serial number, and then try to escape or commit suicide as soon as possible. They can withstand torture very well, but they will enthusiastically betray their superiors if you convince them that their efforts are unappreciated.

    Bugbears: Bugbears are vicious, unfeeling brutes. By "unfeeling" I mean "they don't have pain receptors." However, they are easily bribed.

    Orcs: If you try to torture orcs, or even tie them up, they will get so mad that the pulsing vein in their forehead will burst and they will die.

    Gnolls: Stressed gnolls undergo frenzied visions of following Yeenoghu and ripping people limb from limb. In this state, they slaver foam, snap their teeth, and giggle curses. They don't give information.

    Elves: Elves enter a trance state much like the gnolls do, except theirs involve dancing in magical glades instead of running down panicked humans. Instead of slavering foam, they murmur, "More tea?" and "Sindural shall play the aulos while Mistral distributes the mystic crumb cakes." But elves will tell you anything during pillow talk.

    Half elves: Half elves never have secrets worth knowing.

    Dwarves: Dwarves have high pain tolerance and unending reservoirs of stubbornness and hatred. However, they love beautiful things. Instead of torturing them physically, make them watch as you hit a dwarf-made ewer with a hammer.

    Halflings: Torture is unnecessary to get information out of halflings. Just engage them in friendly small talk. They will accidentally reveal 1d4 secrets per hour, from closely-guarded pie recipes to secret tunnels into the castle.

    Humans: Torture might work on humans, but you probably shouldn't do it. Because torture is evil.

    10th level wizard spells

    July 16th, 2014 by paul

    I've talked before about why 10th level spells exist in the game world's past but not its present. Here are some appropriately overpowered 10th-level wizard spells.

    851D webBecause every such spell is lost to history (most 10th-level spell users having destroyed their own civilizations), each spell must be researched based on tantalizing clues from forbidden books. An easy Wisdom check reveals that this is a bad idea.

    10th-level spells are more the purview of villainous NPCs than PCs. I bet that they can be cast with lower-level spell slots, if cast in a suitably long and interruptable ritual.

    10th-level spells:

    Animate all dead. Area: the world.

    Detect Great Old One's Thoughts. Your brain explodes. Everyone within 1000 miles is subject to a Feeblemind spell.

    Disaster. Range: 5 miles. Everything is destroyed and everyone is killed within a 1 mile radius. Caster's choice of meteor strike, inferno, volcano, chasm, plague, tarrasque, etc. There may be unintended lingering side effects (deadly ash, tarrasque, plague, etc)

    Erase person. Range: 400 feet. Kill one person and destroy their body and gear, no save. Everyone except for the caster instantly forgets the person ever existed. Their deeds are re-ascribed to others. People with close relationships to the erased person get a saving throw after 1 week of being confused by inconsistent memories.

    Immortality. The spell all the liches are searching for. Warning: may attract liches.

    Mordenkainen's dimensional domain. Warps space so that an area of up to a 20-mile radius is moved into a pocket dimension, accessible only by rules set by the caster (only through a specific wardrobe, appears one day every 100 years, etc). Don't bring a bag of holding into this domain.

    Planar blink. Duration: one hour. Every turn, you may teleport anywhere you've scried or visited on any plane, or you can teleport to a random location on a plane you've heard of but never visited, or you can teleport to a random location on a random plane. Besides the classic planes, you can visit alternate timelines, other D&D campaigns and game systems, and the theoretical dimension where game-players control your actions, so you can kill the guy controlling you.

    Power word: damn. The target dies and goes to hell. They get a saving throw after a year. Even if they return, they'll be pretty traumatized.

    Soul swap. Touch someone. You permanently swap bodies, no save. You each keep your game stats but trade appearance and age.

    Trans-galactic jaunt. The caster and 10 friends can survive comfortably in space and fly at 1 light-year per hour. They can finally explore the vast seas between stars and discover that, however a big deal they might be on their planet, they're level 1 in cosmic terms.

    And finally, the real reason level-10 spell research is a bad idea:

    Detect 10th level spell research. The one wizard in the multiverse who knows this spell also knows Planar blink and Erase person.

    The Mike Mearls “Gen Con Challenge”

    July 10th, 2014 by Rory

    On Monday, Wizards of the Coast posted an article by Mike Mearls about building adventures. You can read it HERE.

    At the end of the article, he wrote the following: "Now, let's see if anyone manages to use this article and the material in the Starter Set to hit 20th level by GenCon . . ."

    Sounds like a challenge to me!

    To put things in perspective, let's calculate how many Young Green Dragons (by far the highest XP monster in the Starter Set) a party of 4 Adventurers would need to slay between when the article came out and the start of Gen Con to get their party to 20th level and win the Gen Con Challenge!

    • Gen Con begins on August 14th. That gives a party who started the Gen Con Challenge when the article was released 37 days to complete the challenge.
    • We can assume an industrious group had already finished the Starter Set adventure, Lost Mine of Phandelver, before this article came out. That should put the PCs at level 5.
    • That means each PC needs about 348,500 more XP to get to level 20.
    • A Young Green Dragon is 3,900 XP.
    • Thus the party needs to kill roughly 89 Young Green Dragons for each PC. With 4 PCs, they need to kill about 356 dragons (357 if you round up the fractions, but let's not split hairs) to get to level 20.
    • That's about 9-10 Young Green Dragons a day, assuming they meet up every day!
    • Of course, they could decide to go the other route and kill as many goblins as possible instead. Then they'd be looking at a whopping 27,840 goblins to get to 20th level, or roughly 752 goblins a day!!!

    Are you on your way to completing the Mike Mearls Gen Con Challenge? If you do, what boon will your party request from Mike Mearls when you meet him at Gen Con? Perhaps a spell named after your group's 20th level wizard? Or maybe you'll request that a full-scale model of your party's fighter replace the life-sized Regdar that sits in the WotC offices?

    Image courtesy of this post on EnWorld: http://www.enworld.org/forum/showthread.php?316074-Bet-you-wish-your-workplace-looked-like-WotC

    Image borrowed from this post by Gaming Tonic on EnWorld: http://www.enworld.org/forum/showthread.php?316074-Bet-you-wish-your-workplace-looked-like-WotC