5e Dungeon Masters Guide: The Paradoxical Economy of D&D

December 17th, 2014 by Rory

10313383_10152396043486071_5167317756165026174_nThe D&D Dungeon Masters Guide is out now, and it's a very cool resource filled with lots of new rules for treasure, magic items, world building, new downtime activities, and optional rules! Also, my name is in the play-tester credits, so that's pretty fun :).

Anyway, instead of doing something ridiculous, like review an entire book, I'd like to focus on one specific element I found interesting, the rules for running a business during your downtime!

The idea of running a business and making extra money during downtime is pretty appealing. It's a great way to engage with the campaign world, a fun "simulationist" way to make money, and it opens up some cool adventure hooks for the DM. For example, maybe some mysterious cloaked figures show up at your Inn, clearly wounded and seeking shelter for the night, OR maybe a group of bumbling first level adventures meet up for the first time, planning a raid on a dragon lair that will surely result in their deaths!

However, running a business is a tricky mechanic to get right. You probably don't want it to be TOO profitable, or else your PCs will be scratching their heads, wondering why they ever go on adventures. Conversely, if it doesn't really make you any money, why even bother? Sure, running an Inn sounds cool, but if it's not profitable, maybe you're better off spending your character's time elsewhere.

The folks at Wizards of the Coast gave running a business a decent shot that may work for casual play, but unfortunately it suffers from a few serious flaws when you dig into it:

  • Running a big business is less profitable than running a small business: If you look at the table for running a business, you'll see that lower results penalize you by forcing you to pay some percentage of your upkeep every day you spent running a business. Your upkeep can range from 5SP a day for a farm to 10GP a day for a trading post. That makes sense. If your business does poorly, you still have to pay your workers and keep your property in shape. What is pretty counter-intuitive, however, is that if you roll higher on the table, you roll a set amount of dice to determine your profit. This profit is in the same range no matter the size of your business. So a small farm makes the same profit as a large inn, but since the large inn has an upkeep that is 20 times larger, you'll end up making a lot less money overall since it will hurt a lot more when you roll poorly and need to pay that upkeep. Read the rest of this entry »

5e DMG talks a good game about ancient dragons

December 16th, 2014 by paul

The 5e DMG describes the tiers of the game from levels 1-4, where you fight rats in a basement, to level 17-20, where you fight "wyrms of tremendous power, whose sleep troubles kingdoms and whose waking threatens existence itself."

Wow, that's some high flown rhetoric about dragons! Let's take it seriously and see where it takes us.

First of all, sleep and waking are traditionally very important to dragons. In old school d&d, dragons are, I think, the only monsters with a chance to be asleep when discovered in their lairs. This is clearly an emulation of Smaug, who is asleep when Bilbo finds him and who has been holed up in his lair, apparently, for about sixty years. So dragons hibernate. Like cicadas, they have an active period when they desolate the countryside and a sleeping period of 30+ years when they leave their nests little if at all. I propose that the older the dragon, the longer the sleeping period. The d&d world just can't support lots of existence-troubling dragons all awake at once.

Their sleep troubles kingdoms. What does that even mean? The simplest and most boring explanation is that everyone is worried about when the dragon will wake up. Possible, but not mythic enough. Another possibility: those world-altering 5e "lair effects" persist during the dragon's hibernation. Undoubtedly true, but the area around a dragon's lair is probably wilderness anyway. I don't see lair effects troubling kingdoms. The best explanation I have is that hibernating dragons aren't 100% asleep. They can wake or semi-wake for brief periods, maybe even lash out a casual claw to wipe out a foolish lair intruder. And they can have conversations. They can get reports from their spies, bandy words with bold explorers, and send kobolds to negotiate alliances with other evil monsters. The diplomacy and threats of an ancient dragon could trouble nations, and perhaps truly powerful dragons can use other powers from far away. Green to twist the minds of mortals. Black to bring eclipses and darkness. Red to spark rage-fueled wars and wildfires. Et cetera.

Of course, if anyone seriously angers a hibernating dragon by wounding it or by stealing its treasure, it will fully wake and start its ravages early. So the countryside will try to persuade the adventurers: "Let sleeping dragons lie."

Waking threatens existence. That seems like that's gotta be hyperbole, right? They're just dragons. Sure, dragons have good stats, and an ancient dragon could probably torch a palace and decapitate a kingdom or two, unless the kingdom has some epic level heroes handy. But existence? Like, the whole material plane and the other planes as well?

Ok here is my theory. There are only a literal handful of dragons who can actually raise this sort of existential threat: one of each chromatic color, in fact. Here I am taking a cue from Rory's game world. He has an important NPC black dragon who is an oracle to those brave enough to visit its lair (if it conforms with my house rules proposed above, it is in its hibernation period and is probably using its oracular power for some sinister future purpose). As far as Rory has revealed, this is the most powerful black dragon in the world, but it doesn't necessarily attack its visitors. But imagine the devastation that this infallible black dragon will wreak when it wakes up. Let's say that, likewise, the master of green dragons has a charmed coterie of spies in every palace and its claw on the domino which could topple civilization. The white dragon master is not cunning like its peers: it is simply cold personified. Packs of winter wolves coalesce from its icy snores. When it wakes, it wreaks ice-age blizzards in which glaciers roll towards the heart of the world. Blue and red dragons: I can't think of the powers of the two strongest dragons right now. Perhaps you can. If so, leave a comment. The point is, each dragon has the individual power to threaten kingdoms or the world, though not existence itself. But here is the thing. These five master dragons are on sleep cycles from, say, 28 years for white to, say, 60 for red. If they are ever all awake at once, they, Voltron-like, form an unchained Tiamat. And then existence really is threatened.

treasure acquisition rates in the 5e DMG (and the missing 1 GP=1XP rules)

December 9th, 2014 by paul

You might be curious: if you use the treasure tables in the 5e DMG, how rich will the characters be? This becomes important if you want to do things like give characters XP for GP found.

Here's the breakdown: for each tier (a band of 4-6 levels) I've written a script which presents the average monetary treasure and provides a sample roll on the treasure table. (I'm using ~ as shorthand for "on average" here.)

What we see here is that, for each tier, average hoard value is multiplied by 10. At first glance, this seems like a problem. This is not granular at all, and treasure values don't change for 6 levels at a time?? A closer look reveals that it might work quite well. The treasure quantity is tied to the monster's level, not the PC's level. If PCs take on monsters of varying but surmountable difficulties, they will naturally fight steadily increasing numbers of higher-tier monsters as they level up. For instance, if you imagine a group who fights monsters of their level +1d6-2, these big steps turn naturally into a nice curve. Not only it is a smooth average, it's one with extremely varied rewards. That means that there's lots of the "wow! I'm rich!" moments that make slot machines so popular.

Knowing how much money characters are "expected" to earn helps us gauge a lot of things about the economy. For me, the most important questions are a) when can characters afford domains? and b) can I give out 1 XP per 1 GP and ignore monster XP?

When will the players be afford to buy castles? Because of 1e tradition, I want people to be able to afford domains at around level 10, so I might price them at a few tens of thousands of GP. At that price, a tenth-level party, which will probably have picked up a few third-tier hoards, will be able to start affording them.

What about 1 GP = 1 XP? There's no rules for that in the DMG, and you want to have some way to match GP to XP to figure out how long it will take to level. At straight GP to XP, are we looking at a full campaign taking, like, a few weeks or a few decades?

Well, according to the "standard" expectations of treasure hordes found per career, a 20th-level party will have discovered about 3 million GP, at a rate of about 3 treasure hordes per character level. It takes 255,000 XP to get to level 20, so that hoard is enough for about 8 characters to get to level 20. That means that, at level 20, GP=XP is in the right ballpark, but a little high.

How does 1 GP=1 XP fare at lower levels? It takes 300 XP to get to level 2, which means that the party has to find 1 tier-1 treasure hoard per character. That will take a while, considering that level 1 is supposed to be a training level. Tier-one treasures will generally net about 100 XP for each character in a four-person party, which makes advancement pretty slow. Tier-two treasures (monster level 5+) provide 1000 XP each, and become necessary for advancement at around character level 3. Tier-three treasures (monster level 11+) provide 10k XP each, and characters of level 6+ really need one or more tier-three treasure in order to advance in level. High-level characters need four or five such finds, which means that high levels take a lot more time to accrue. No one needs a tier-4 treasure (level 17+): its 100k XP would take a party of 17th-level characters to level 20 in one shot (assuming you could gain more than 1 level per treasure).

In short, the treasure expectations almost-but-not-quite work for 1XP=1GP. For that trick, the treasure finds really do need to be a little more regular. Here's the fix I propose:

Whenever a monster is in the top half of a tier (levels 3-4, 8-10, 14-16) double the monetary treasure. This eases the speed bumps that slow down character advancement at certain points.

Ignore tier-four treasures. A steady diet of doubled tier-three treasures will allow high-level characters to advance after every two hoards (or once after a dragon hoard). A tier-four treasure of 300,000 GP might be fun but it is not necessary for character advancement.

blank province, kingdom, and continent hex maps for 5e

December 5th, 2014 by paul

provincemapI just talked about the DMG map scales for 5e D&D: province (1 mile hex), kingdom (6 mile hex), and continent (60 mile hex).

Maybe you want to try drawing up a new continent for your brand new 5e game. I've made print-resolution blank hex map PDFs for the three map scales. As suggested in the DMG, it's 5 hexes to the inch.

Province map has kingdom hexes overlaid on it so you can easily place it on your kingdom map.

Kingdom map has a continent hex overlay.

Continent map is just a plain hex grid.

Here's a zip of all three.

the world population of D&D: notes from the 5e DMG

December 2nd, 2014 by paul

OK, first of all: as was the case with the Monster Manual, Rory and my names are in the Dungeon Masters Guide! We're credited as "Additional feedback provied by". It's notable that I didn't review the acknowledgements section, or that particular spelling error would have never gotten through. In fact, since I saw early drafts of DMG sections, a third or more of the book is completely new to me.

Of the core books, the DMG benefits the most from close readings: things that were explained fully in previous DMGs are often presented in complete but compressed form. I'll probably find things to unpack in this DMG for a few weeks.

Today I'll be talking about page 14 of the DMG. In the 3e DMG we got, like, a chapter on worldbuilding, demographics, and settlement generation. In 5e we get page 14. This contains the outdoor campaign mapping rules, into which is encoded a lot of world demographics information. From this page, what can we learn about the D&D world? Is it more like a medieval dark age, or the early Renaissance, or is it totally ahistorical?

Page 14 recommends getting hex paper with five hexes to the inch (so about 2000 hexes per sheet, more or less.) Following in the footsteps of BECMI, the DMG recommends maps at three different scales. This time it's Province (1 mile hex), Kingdom (6 mile hex) and Continent scale (60 mile hex).

First of all, there's a major error in the section about combining scales: it says that at continent scale, "1 hex represents the same area as 10 kingdom scale hexes." Wrong. 1 continent hex is 100x times the area. Similarly, a kingdom hex is the area of 30 province hexes, not 6 as claimed. It looks like this was simply an error of saying "area" when they meant "length", and, with that substitution, the rest of the math on the page works out fine. Still, that will confuse some poor saps when they get around to making new campaign maps.

OK, on to those sweet demographics!

On a province-scale 8 1/2 x 11 map, which takes about two days of travel to traverse, the DMG says that you'd expect to find one town (population generally around 4000, based on settlement size ranges) and 10 villages (population around 500 each), which works out to about 5 people per square mile in settled lands, about the same population density as the Western Sahara. Wow! Fantasy medieval Europe is empty!

The kingdom scale of 6 miles per hex is just about standard for D&D outdoor hex scales (5 to 8 miles per hex, depending on edition). A kingdom map of a settled area will have 10 notable cities or towns; villages are not shown at this scale. Considering that a kingdom map contains 30 province maps, each of which is likely to contain a town, it's probable that small towns aren't shown on the map either.

Continent scale is huge. At 60 miles to the hex, you could fit Europe on one sheet of hex paper, plus about a third of Russia. If your continent fills the map, it has the same area as 3000 province maps, and it takes three months to traverse at 25 miles per day. That'd give you a population of 30 million people if the entire continent were settled, but probably it's half wild. Apparently this matches the demographics of Europe in 650, right after the Plague of Justinian wiped out 50% of the world population.

OK, so D&D demographics match a) 650 AD, one of the worst post-apocalyptic times in world history and b) Western Sahara, a current nearly-uninhabited strip of desert.

We don't have to do anything with this information. We can run a jolly D&D campaign with dragons, kings, and quest givers without wondering about the number of peasants in a square mile. But we can also find inspiration in the game's parallels with Earth demographics. Here's what the numbers suggest to me.

a) There was a recent event, probably within the last 100 years (because population recovers over a few hundred years), that killed a lot of people. Everybody still remembers it and it terrified of its return. What was it?

b) There are a lot of deserted villages. Furthermore, in every village, town, and city, there are a lot of empty houses. Land is cheap.

d) The king is happy to give you a parcel of land and a border fort when you hit name level. Why not? That border fort is sitting empty right now.

e) A lot of abandoned dungeon locations were probably thriving civilized structures within the last 100 or 200 years. For instance, that border fort the king just gave you.

These speculations are borne out by other parts of the DMG.

-Standard city size caps at about 25,000: larger metropolises, like Waterdeep and Greyhawk (or Toulouse!) are rare. These city populations are fairly low for medieval city population, but make sense in the wake of a plague that wiped out half the population.

-In the Wilderness section, a wilderness province contains "ruined villages and towns that are either abandoned or serve as lairs for marauding bandits and monsters." Wilderness doesn't have to mean old-growth forest or untamed mountains: it might also mean farms and villages given over to chaos.

use this 17th century city map for your home base

November 21st, 2014 by paul

My dad has this map of the city of Toulouse in 1631. I don't know where he got it. Maybe he picked it up in Toulouse in 1631.


click to enlarge

It's a super D&D-style map. It's one of those Greyhawk-like maps which shows every building in the city. Furthermore, it's numerically keyed. The original map labels 100 or so locations in the city - in French of course. I've deleted all the key text and street/river names so you can write your own.

Here's a representative neighborhood:


The numbers are scattered haphazardly around the map, so it's pretty hard to look up the location of, say, 36. Give them a break. In 1631, D&D was in its infancy. The numbers are also tiny: the best-resolution map I could find is just good enough to read the numbers, but could be better.

So you want to drop this map into your campaign world. What kind of city does it represent?

According to Wikipedia, Toulouse in the 1690s had 40,000 inhabitants. In 1631 that was probably a little lower. I estimate that this map shows about 5 or 6 thousand houses. You could plausibly fit that population into that number of buildings, so this map could actually show every house in what the 3e DMG would classify as a Large City or even a Metropolis. This could be your big home base city, and you can key every church, palace, inn, and NPC's home, if you so desire.

What's the scale of the city? I left the charming medieval French scale bar. Distance is measured in "pais", or paces. A pace was 30 inches, which is a great D&D number because two paces is exactly 5 feet. Toulouse is about two miles across in its widest dimension.

Also interesting to note: city blocks in 17th century Toulouse were a big ring of buildings surrounding some outside space: orchards, gardens, or common pasture. If this map is to be believed, everyone had a backyard. That observation matches with similar medieval city maps: check out Brussels. Sure, these cities feature filth in the streets, cramped alleys, and overhanging second floors, but there are lots of public squares and semi-private green places.

Another thing: Toulouse's shape. It looks like a heart, broken by the river running through it. City of the broken heart?

Here's a one-page PDF of the map. It might be better served by a two-page spread with larger, less randomly placed numbers. I leave that as an exercise to the DM.

what’s this about a shakespearian D&D storyline?

November 11th, 2014 by paul

At Gamehole Con this weekend, Chris Perkins dropped some D&D future product spoilers. For instance, you might have heard him say that there will be a 5e Open Game License. But you might have missed this tidbit: a future D&D storyline will be "a giants based story influenced by a Shakespearean play." That sounds nuts!

sparta-romeo-and-julietSo my question is: what Shakespeare play?

The Tempest: Elminster is washed up on a desert island with his daughter? who exists apparently? Elminster enslaves some spirits giants. Years later, the PCs wash up ashore. In classic Forgotten Realms fashion, Elminster messes with the PCs for a while and then fixes everything.

A Midsummer Night's Dream: Titania and Oberon, rulers of the fairie court, are already D&D canon. Throw some enemy giants or fomorians in there. Half of the players must wear donkey heads and the other half must wear fairy wings and glitter.

Henry V: How about Henry V mashed up with Against the Giants? Choose from exciting 8th level pregens like
-King Henry, a rogue 5/paladin 3, who gives inspiring speeches like "Once more unto the breach glacial rift of the frost giant jarl, dear friends, once more!"
-Scrope, a fighter 8, a friend of the King. The DM secretly informs him that he's actually a traitor working for the giants.
-Falstaff, a rogue 8, who has a really cool character concept but isn't allowed to attend any sessions and dies offscreen in an NPC speech.

Romeo and Juliet: A forbidden love between rival factions. Is Romeo a giant, or is Juliet? Both possibilities are creepy. Or is Romeo a fire giant and Juliet a frost giant? The PCs all play the part of Mercutio and are all killed before the end of the adventure.

As You Like It: A pastoral comedy set in the Forest of Arden. The "all the world's a stage" speech is changed to "all the world's a D&D game" and is read aloud by the most morose player. There are no giants in this adventure, but for the sake of the adventure, Shakespeare is considered to be a giant.

Tamburlaine by Christopher Marlowe: Perkins did say a Shakespearean play, not a Shakespeare play, which lets in the other Elizabethan playwrights. Tamburlaine is a mass-combat campaign suitable for epic characters (armies are numbered in the hundreds of thousands). It's easy to find inspiration from its blood-and-thunder speeches like

What means this devilish shepherd, to aspire
With such a giantly presumption,
To cast up hills against the face of heaven,
And dare the force of angry Jupiter?
But, as he thrust them underneath the hills,
And press'd out fire from their burning jaws,
So will I send this monstrous slave to hell,
Where flames shall ever feed upon his soul.

Right there we have devil shepherds (and, by inference, devil sheep?), giants, burning jaws, and a monstrous slave who is sent to hell, all of which could be statted up.

Which is your Viking race?

November 4th, 2014 by paul

Vikings are so D&D, because, you know, vikings are so metal, and metal is so D&D, and the transitive property. Hell, Basic D&D has a viking on the cover.

vikingsIt's pretty much a requirement that your campaign world have a viking culture. (To be a D&D viking you must wear horned helmets and raid in longships.) So who are the vikings in your D&D campaign? You didn't... forget the vikings, did you? No worries! Come right this way, we'll fix you right up.

The typical viking races

Humans: On Earth, the real vikings were all human, so humans get a big edge right off the bat. The ubiquitous human "barbarians of the frozen north" are very strong viking candidates. In fact, the 5e PHB Barbarian illustration is a human viking. In your campaign, do the barbarians of the frozen north have longships? If so, congratulations! You're done.

Dwarves: Appearance- and culture-wise, dwarves are basically short vikings. They have beards, horned helmets, axes, and mead halls. There's just one problem. They're typically AFRAID OF BOATS. This is a major disadvantage for going a-viking. Maybe dwarves are just really good at facing their fear. If you can get the dwarves onto the deck of a ship, they make great vikings, of the "we're good guys for some reason, never mind what we do on our raids" variety.

Dragonborn: Dragonborn as vikings explains a few things. 1) Why did dragonborn just appear in your campaign in 4e or 5e? (They sailed in from an offscreen Fantasy Scandinavia continent.) 1) Why do longships always have dragon prows? (Those aren't wooden figureheads; longships are built around the mummified remains of the tribe's draconic ancestor, and the ship itself has a breath weapon.)

Orcs: Orcs have a lot of things going for them. They love to pillage and they look good in horned helmets. Orcs are a fun enemy; they're even more fun when 30 of them can loot an undefended village and sail away before the PCs arrive. Give the PCs the mission of defending several coastal villages. That's right: time to split the party.

the atypical viking races

halflings: If you use halflings as your viking race, you're really playing against type. Let's do our best. Armored up, and wielding half-sized military forks, halflings sail their shortships into unsuspecting villages, arrive at peoples' houses right before lunchtime, and sit around looking expectantly at the buffet table.

medusas: Beautiful armored women gallop across the sky, surveying the battlefield. They choose the mightiest mortal warriors - and turn them to stone so that they will each be immortal monuments of their own prowess. On Ragnarok, Odin casts Stone to Flesh across the earth.

sea elves: Sea elves have all of the tactical advantages of vikings - they can raid coastal communities with impunity - but they don't need boats. Give them double axes and green elf-beards, and give them some way to keep their mead from floating away in the sea water (squeeze bottles?)

scrags: This approach is pretty similar to sea elves, except using sea trolls instead. Up till now, I've never had any use for scrags. But I'm amused by the idea of using a race of Grendels as the horn-helmeted, mead-swilling Beowulf clones.

wights: The word "wight" means "man" in Middle English and Germanic languages. Take that literally and you get a faction of intelligent undead warriors, sort of like the Forsaken from WoW or the White Walkers from Game of Thrones. Put them on longboats and play some heavy metal and you have a pretty badass enemy.

how to make a magic sword that everyone hates

October 24th, 2014 by paul

Because there's not enough magic swords, right? Here's a semi-cursed magic sword I made up for last week's game.

It's a scimitar that appears to be made out of pure gold, with a fanged mouth at the end of the hilt. Its name is "Feed me gold!"

The sword can be in two states: hungry or sated. When it's first discovered, it's hungry.

Hungry: The sword periodically roars "Feed me gold!" or "Give me gold or I will smite you all!" in an ear-splitting Yosemite Sam voice (audible for half a mile). It takes especial care to yell when enemies are nearby or when its owners are sneaking. The hungry sword is heavy and clumsy in combat (-1). Once per day, the sword can cast Knock. It does so only to thwart its owner or to change owners (for instance, by unlocking a door between it and a thief).

The sword requires 1 GP per day to be sated.

Sated: The sword acts as a +1 intelligent scimitar (it has Int, Wis, and Cha of 8). It will speak at a reasonable volume. It can cast Knock once a day at its owner's request. When it casts Knock, it yells, "Gold opens all doors!"

Here's how I introduced the sword: lodged in the back of a dark cave, shouting imperiously for gold in a scary monster voice, and bossing around the local peasants.

My group hates the sword. One character wants to throw it in the river. Others are like, "Well, it's a jerk, but it is a +1 sword. We should probably keep it." It galls them to pay an object; they'd probably be much happier if they'd bought it outright.

It's funny because the group also hired some mercenaries in the same session, for exactly the same price, 1 GP/day. To be fair, a henchman is better because when they die you can take back their salary.

diseases that make you stronger (and then kill you)

October 17th, 2014 by paul

I just recovered from a 24 hour flu. In honor of which, enjoy these plagues.

The Dancing Death: In its first stage, which lasts for weeks, this disease has no effect. In its second stage, which lasts several days, the victim feels energetic and manic, doesn't sleep very much, and probably seeks out scenes of feasting and celebration. Finally, in the third stage, which lasts about a minute, the victim begins a dance which becomes more spastic and terrifying, and dies. Anyone who sees the dance is infected.

Black Eyed Beauty: Stage one is a minor cold. When you recover, your eye color changes to black. Your charisma is now 18. Even people who know you're diseased must make a will/wisdom save to leave your presence. During this period, you spread the disease by touch. After a week or two of this, you die, leaving a beautiful corpse.

Brain Fever: Stage one: You are bedridden with a dangerously high fever for three days. You must make a DC10 Con check to survive, with appropriate bonuses if someone is tending you. Stage two: your intelligence and wisdom increase to 22. You can read at 10x speed and have perfect recall. If you're already working on a project, you become obsessed with its completion. Otherwise you become obsessed with the first project that's suggested to you. After three days of this, you die. During stage 2, Cure Disease does not work on you. When you die, a small spider crawls out of your mouth. Anyone bitten by the spider must make a DC 12 save or become infected. Evil wizards sometimes harvest these spiders and purposely infect peasants to act as their research assistants.