Archive for the ‘advice/tools’ Category

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

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

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. (more…)

Light Crossbow: Still the Weapon of Choice for Low Level Wizards in 5e

Monday, July 7th, 2014

One of the nice things about D&D 4e was that wizards and other spellcasters got to step back from the old routine from previous editions of relying on the crossbow during easy fights or after they expended their paltry assortment of spells at low levels. They had at least 2 powers they could use over and over again to do solid damage equivalent to a basic melee strike (often with very cool added bonuses).

Alas, in 5e the crossbow comes to the forefront again. A layperson may be forgiven for assuming that a low level wizard doesn’t really need a crossbow; after all, they have plenty of cantrips they can fall back on to do a wide variety of elemental damage. My response is that unless they are fighting monsters with vulnerability to fire, cold, or electricity, the crossbow is almost always a better bet until level 5.

My reasoning is simple:

  • Damage: A wizard using point buy is often going to have a 14 or 16 Dexterity, depending on their race. With a 16 Dexterity, a wizard does 1d8+3 damage with a crossbow, blowing the 1d10 firebolt out of the water. That’s an average of 2 extra damage, which may not sound like much until you consider that it’s a 36% increase in damage that has less variance, making it much more likely to make the difference between an injury and a kill. Obviously, the effect is less potent for a 14 Dexterity Wizard, but 1 damage is still significant when the damage values are so low.
  • Spell Effects: Fire Bolt, Ray of Frost, and Shocking Grasp have relatively minor spell effects. In short, the effects of these spells are very situational. Fire Bolt is good for environmental effects, like setting an oil slick on fire or lighting a torch, but has no direct effect when used against a target. Ray of Frost has some use in the first round of combat or when an enemy if fleeing, interfering with their ability to approach and escape effectively, but its utility is limited during the bulk of combat when significant movement across the battlefield tends to become less important. Shocking Grasp is arguably the most useful, but it’s melee only; it’s really best as a way to do some damage and still withdraw (presumably to pull out your trusty crossbow). And of course, both Ray of Frost and Shocking Grasp only do 1d8 damage, which puts them even further behind the crossbow in the damage department.
  • Crossbow is better than ever!: The light crossbow has the loading quality, which is no surprise. What is surprising is that all the loading quality does is restrict you to one attack per action, bonus action, or reaction. Since wizards almost never get more than one attack per action, this tag is no real impediment. In contrast, in 3.5, a light crossbow required a move action to load, which could be a real pain.


Lifestyle and Downtime in 5e Basic

Sunday, July 6th, 2014

D&D 5e Basic was released a few days ago, and it is packed with 110 pages of great information, including full line ups of the common races and classes. What I am most excited about, however, are the rules for lifestyle and downtime! Some version of these types of rules probably existed in earlier editions, but as someone who primarily played 3.5 and 4e, I really missed not having them. I love subsystems that give a little structure to life outside of adventures and give rewards and consequences to taking time off to pursue other goals (or just wait for the next adventure to roll around). Also, for a certain style of campaign it is very fun to put financial pressure on the PCs so they are always wondering how they are going to scratch together enough money to pay their rent and feed themselves (or suffer the consequences of the new rules for starving!).

Let’s explore our options to see what we have to work with:


witches are hobbyists

Monday, June 24th, 2013

My random forest monster chart includes witches, which don’t usually get a stat block. The Hag isn’t the same thing. The important thing about witches is that each has her own cottage industry.

Despite the fact that witches gather in covens, and despite the misguided Hansel and Gretel movie where witch mooks are mowed down with machine gun fire, D&D witches are most interesting as lone monsters. Each witch should have a unique and cruel form of magic.

Hansel and Gretel’s witch makes gingerbread. Circe has a pig farm. The witches in the seminal work on witchcraft, Nick Cage’s Wicker Man, keep bees. The Macbeth witches are political wonks, and probably have a Nate Silver-style blog. Each witch has a horrific twist on their own hobby*, but they’re all hobbyists nonetheless, following the dictates of their own peculiar imaginations, and therefore spiritual sisters to D&D players. Some witch probably plays a twisted variant of OD&D where the players suffer the fate of their characters. “Bad luck, your character stumbled into a trap! Roll on the random trap chart! ROLL ON IT!”

When your players randomly encounter a witch, you should take a few seconds to come up with some unique pastime. Or roll on this chart (when you roll an entry, cross it off and write in something new):
1: baker (we used a witch baker recently in the Mearls sidebar)
2: shoemaker (collects feet for study so that the shoes will fit better)
3: mason (turns the victims of her trickery into stones; has a pretty big castle by this point)
4: playwright (captures friend/family groups and compels them to enact horrific Shakespearean tragedies)
5: cooking contest judge (mystery ingredient: pieces of yourself!)
6: randomly choose from – so many good ones to choose from! B-boying, RC car racing, and parkour witches are all great possibilities.

Witches and gender

Because medieval Europeans were weirdos, traditional witches are female. We don’t need to reject this powerful archetype, but we don’t have to be bound to it either. As far as I’m concerned, a witch is a person who seems civilized, but who uses guile and magic to destroy travelers in terrifying ways. Bluebeard is a nice example of a male character with witch-like characteristics (his particular hobby is serial monogamy). Inside the game world, he might not be called a witch, but I’d use witch stats for him.

*I didn’t see the movie, so I can’t say for sure that the Wicker Man witches had a particularly horrific style of beekeeping. I can only hope that they did, and that it involved Nick Cage getting stung, a lot.

randomly generate aeons of warring empires

Monday, March 18th, 2013
In this post, I use Mediterranean history to create charts that randomly generate plausible history. If you want to skip the numbercrunching, here are the charts:

1: Each century, for each already-existing empire, roll 1d4:
1-3: It continues to be important.
4: It dissolves or becomes unimportant.

2: How many new empires arose this century? Roll 1d6.
1-2: 0
3: 1
4: 2
5-6: 1d4

What does a plausible fantasy history look like? In order to feel familiar, it should avoid the monolithic extremes of 30,000 years of barbarism of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and the 1000 generations of peace of Star Wars’ Old Republic. Better to stick to something more like Earth history: constantly changing borders as competing empires rise and fall. Not only does this feel more realistic, it lends itself better to D&D play. A big pool of fallen-empires-of-the-week provides diverse dungeons and treasure.

I decided that, to better determine what imperial histories look like, I’d count up a representative sample of Earth empires: How many exist side-by-side, and how often do they arise? From there, I could extrapolate random charts to generate my own game worlds. I limited myself to the Mediterranean from 500 BC to 1500 AD (after iron and before the New World). This is a manageable piece of the world. The Mediterranean is fairly easy to travel, so co-existing empires can interact. Furthermore, it provides the history many of us are familiar with.

Empires of the Mediterranean, 500 BC to 1500 AC

(A lot of data is from Specific dates are arguable, but I’m just trying to get a rough count here.)

How long do empires last?

It looks like empires have a half-life of a little more than 200 years: of the 27 Mediterranean empires, half (14) are dead after 200 years, 8 more after another 200, and 4 more after another 200. Only the Byzantine empire defies the odds for 1200 years. You’d be pretty close to accurate if you said that each empire has a 3 in 4 chance of surviving each century.

How often do empires start?

In the 21 century-marks I examine, 7 see the birth of 0 empires, 6 see 1, 5 see 2, 2 see 3, and one exciting century (1200) sees 4 empires arise. Here’s a d6 chart that models that pretty closely.
1-2: 0 new empires
3: 1
4: 2
5-6: 1d4

How big is each empire?

That’s extremely variable, even over the course of a single empire’s lifetime. Most empires reach their height around the middle. The Macedonian empire started small, conquered all of the Mediterranean overnight, and then shrunk again. The Bulgarian empire, on the other hand, is donut-shaped: it started at a decent size, disappeared briefly when it was conquered by the Byzantines, and then re-established itself. Therefore, I won’t make any dice charts for this one. Look at your campaign map and see what fits where. Generally, if an empire shares the world with many rivals, it’s probably smaller, and if it’s alone, it probably spans the known world.

The final empire-building model:

For every 100 years of ancient history, roll on the following tables.

1: Each century, for each already-existing empire, roll 1d4:
1-3: It continues to be important.
4: It dissolves or becomes unimportant.

2: How many new empires arose this century? Roll 1d6.
1-2: 0
3: 1
4: 2
5-6: 1d4

Differences between the Mediterranean and your campaign world: Monsters and magic!

Your campaign world is probably wilder than ancient and medieval Mediterranean, which should reduce the rise of empires. On the other hand, magic increases each country’s logistic and military might. People must compete for land with monsters, which reduces their imperial resources – but on the other hand, monsters can start their own empires. Let’s say that these opposing factors cancel out. Just make sure that a few of your empires are ruled by demi-humans, humanoids, or monsters. In my campaign world, I’d expect humans to be the major empire-builders. Obviously I have no real-world numbercrunching to do here, so I will just make up an extra, top-of-my-head d6 chart:

Who rules each new empire? Roll 1d6 for each new empire.
1-4: human
5: humanoid or demihuman (orc, elf, etc)
6: monster (vampire, lich, etc)

OR you can just play a game of Small World.

Edit: Gallowglas wrote a sweet random empire generator using these rules. I tried it a few times, and it works great, and I saw some interesting history unfold! Thanks!

A year between levels

Monday, February 4th, 2013

Last week I suggested that in-game time match real time. If your D&D campaign lasts a real year, your characters grow one year older. You could also try the opposite approach: Leveling up always takes a year.

This is good for the type of game where earning a level is a real achievement. As part of the leveling-up process, the players describe how they spent their year. Have them describe exactly how they got their level-up perks: where did they learn their feats and spells? Did the PCs travel the world, or work as guards? The Pendragon RPG incorporates this idea into its “winter phase”, and you could certainly use some Pendragon-inspired charts to find out what happened to your family, friends and lands over the course of the year. This would also be a good time to roll on the investments and business charts from Lamentations of the Flame Princess or the ACKS domain charts. In general, the intersession can be a celebration of the role of logistics in D&D.

The DM can advance the gameworld’s story between levels. At this pace, this type of campaign is much more likely to experience wars, royal succession, and other big events. Furthermore, characters can build castles, found guilds, start families, and otherwise impose their wills upon the world. In a high-speed game, where you go from level 1 to 20 in a month, you don’t have time for such things.

In such a game, your character actually ages significantly. Over the course of 20 levels, a 20-year old youth becomes a 40-year-old veteran. Racial age categories are not meaningless fluff. If you decide to start the game as an aged human wizard, magical aging and elixirs of youth might actually be relevant for once.

Last minute Christmas gift: the Random Dungeons kickstarter book!

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

If you’d like the real-book version of every printable reward from my Random Dungeon kickstarter, you can get Random Dungeons, a 180-page book containing every reward made for every backing level, for $19.95. Until December 14, you can use the coupon code FELICITAS to get 20% off the price (for a price of around $16) and it should arrive before Christmas if you order, like, today.

It contains

  • the art from the Random Dungeon and Random Monster posters
  • the sticker art by Rich Burlew and other artists
  • the final Dungeon Robber rules
  • Paul’s DM Notebook, a 64-page book on its own
  • the All-Star DM notebook, containing new adventures and game tools by Mike Mornard, Mike Shea, Tavis Allison, James Maliszewski, Jared von Hindman, and myself.

    My adventure is none other than the dungeon crawl that we’re doing in the Mearls sidebar. Watch out for spoilers!

    Buy it here!

  • kickstarter posters shipping this week! In the meantime, run a barony!

    Monday, May 7th, 2012

    GameSalute has been busy. They’re doing shipping and fulfillment for my project as well as the Dwimmermount, Sunrise City and Empires of the Void kickstarters, as well as some others. Still, Dan at GameSalute says he’ll begin shipping the posters this week. Thank you all for your patience!

    Around the time that posters are shipped, everyone will get a URL where you can download PDFs of the posters and, eventually, the other rewards as they become available. Most of the other PDFs (all-star adventure book, board game, etc) aren’t ready yet, but one reward that WILL be ready for $22+ backers (and $15 backers) is a PDF version of Paul’s DM Notebook!

    I’ve been working on the DM notebook for a lot of hours over the past month, and it’s just about done: I just need to do one or two more illustrations. It weighs in at 64 pages. This will be a beta version of the book. I’d love it if you guys each tested something from the notebook in your next game and sent me some feedback. Next month or so, I’ll update the notebook and make the final version available as a PDF and on lulu.

    In the meantime, here’s a big chunk of Chapter 7, which includes prices for big-ticket items like castles and armies, and gives rules for running a barony of your own.

    (Download chapter)

    Also, here’s a picture I drew yesterday, for the Epic Adventures section of the book.

    new category of magic item: magical map

    Monday, April 16th, 2012

    At the foot of the little rise there was a map of the world, carte du monde, mappamondo, karte der welt, with the countries marked on it in brilliant colors. I knew that if I wanted to go anywhere, from Angola to Paphlagonia, all I had to do was put my foot on the spot.

    This quote from Sign of the Labrys got me thinking about how few magical maps there are in D&D. (Between proofing my Random Dungeon poster and working on my stretch-goal board game rules, I’m in a mappy place right now anyway.)

    Maps are very important to the play of OD&D. Graph-paper maps are the primary archaeological product of an old-school D&D game, along with empty Mountain Dew bottles. Furthermore, in-game maps (treasure maps) are a big part of OD&D treasure. Nevertheless, there are virtually no magical maps. There might be one or two in splatbooks, but I don’t think any core Dungeon Master’s Guide has ever featured a magical map. (The 1e DMG, on the other hand, has four different magical periapts.)

    Contrast this with computer games. A magical map is one of the ubiquitous items in computer RPGS: so common that it’s part of the user interface. Nearly every game comes with an auto-map. I’m splitting hairs here a little: I know that, within the fiction of the game, most auto-maps represent the cartographic efforts of the main character. Still, if you’ve played old games like The Bard’s Tale where you did your own mapping on graph paper, auto-maps feel pretty darn magical.

    Here are some magical maps for D&D. They join a proud tradition of D&D’s brilliant “you now have permission to ignore the rules” magic items. They don’t really give the players new powers: they enable a free-and-easy play style that some prefer. Don’t like encumbrance? Have a Bag of Holding! Don’t like tracking light sources? Everburning torch!

    Along with each magic map are notes about what play style it might support.


    Automap paper looks like ordinary paper until a drop of ink is applied to it. The ink will crawl of its own accord, drawing a small overhead map view of the PC’s current location. If the PCs are inside a structure, the picture will be scaled so that the entire floor of the building could be drawn on one sheet of paper. If the PCs are outside, it will be scaled so that the entire island or continent can be drawn. Detail level will be appropriate to the scale.

    Once the map has been started, it will automatically update itself whenever it’s in a new location. It can’t map while it’s inside a container: it needs to be held in a hand or otherwise out in the open.

    Players can draw annotations on the map if they like.

    Using automap paper in a game: Start a campaign for a new-school D&D group (3e or 4e) and make them map the dungeons. If they haven’t done so before, every group should map a few dungeons. However, not every campaign is dungeon-crawl focused, and so, once the players have run the gauntlet a few times, let them find a sheaf of, say, 50 sheets of automap paper. From then on, let the players peek at your DM map if they ever get lost. This strategy goes with the general progression of level-based games: start with lots of restrictions, and slowly lift them.

    This item also works well in games where the DM draws out the important locations on a battlemat.

    Because every magical item should have a leveled version, here are some improved versions of Automap Paper:

    Architect’s Map: This superior version of automap paper is blue, and requires white chalk to activate it instead of ink. It draws a whole dungeon level at once, without requiring you to visit each part, and automatically shows hidden and concealed doors, as well as any trap that was built as part of a building’s original construction.

    Using the Architect’s Map in a game: Give the PCs a copy of the DM map. It’s up to them to track their journey and to notice your notations for traps and secret doors. While automap paper can be given freely to PCs, an Architect’s Map might be a limited resource: players might find 1d4 sheets at a time. An architect’s map is especially good when you don’t mind letting the players making informed decisions about where to go.

    Living Map: This is the Harry Potter version of the automap. It uses moving dots of ink to represent all living things on the map. A cluster of 10 hobgoblins might look like one large dot, and be indistinguishable from five hobgoblins, or from a dragon.

    Using the Living Map in a game: Like the Architect’s Map, this should be an expendable resource. It’s handy in an ordinary dungeon: it’s nice to be able to check the map to see if there’s an ambush behind the door. It’s even more useful for heist, stealth, or chase adventures. It’s a nice magic item for groups that like to outthink obstacles instead of killing everyone in their way: in other words, give it to your Shadowrun group when they’re playing D&D for a change. Keep in mind that a single piece of map paper only graphs one floor. If a creature goes upstairs, it’s off the map.

    Travel Map: If a character touches a point on this automap, he or she will instantly travel to that location. Keep in mind that the automap only charts visited places, so a character cannot use it to travel somewhere new. Also, a travel map can only teleport a single player: since the map travels with the player, it can’t be used for party travel.

    This map’s special properties are only available if its owner is in the mapped area: in other words, a player can’t use a travel map of a dungeon to teleport into the dungeon. He or she may only teleport from one point in the dungeon to another.

    This map is especially useful as an outdoor map: travel between cities is usually more time-consuming and difficult than travel between different rooms in a dungeon.

    Using a travel map in a game: A single piece of travel map paper, used as a continental map, can expedite the kind of fast-travel used in most computer RPGs. The first time you go somewhere, you have to go there the hard way. Once you’ve been there, you can hand-wave any future travel to or from that location. A single travel map allows a single character to take intra-continental jaunts, allowing for lots of communication and resupply options; more useful fast travel requires enough maps for the whole party. A pack of travel-map paper is a pretty good find for a high-level party which is outgrowing wilderness adventures.

    A fun trick: Don’t let the players know that their map is of the “travel map” variety. Watch the players during the game. When someone touches a spot on the map to make a point, tell everyone that that player’s character has disappeared.

    Kickstarter: Random Dungeon Generator as a Dungeon Map

    Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

    I’m making a giant poster that will encapsulate the original Dungeon Master’s Guide dungeon-creation rules on a playable dungeon map. I’ll be funding it as a kickstarter.


    The above is just a little piece of the poster, which is currently ten square feet of half-inked, insanely detailed dungeon map, filled with hundreds of corridors, rooms, traps, monsters, stairs, treasures, and other dungeon features, as detailed by the DMG’s Appendix A.

    Here’s how you can use it: This project is an experiment in information presentation. It’s based on a couple of facts: a) the information in the DMG’s random dungeon charts can be rendered as a flow chart; b) any flow chart can be rendered as a dungeon; c) therefore, the procedure to make dungeons can itself be drawn as a dungeon. There are a couple of ways to use the poster.

    a) You could use the poster to generate traditional dungeons: As a DM or as a solo player, you could trace your way through the dungeon, rolling dice at decision points and mapping on graph paper as you go, just as you would using Appendix A from the DMG. You’ll end up with a unique dungeon map.

    b) You could skip the mapping and wander through random dungeons: There’s no need to map: if you follow the arrows through the dungeon, you’ll be presented with a succession of passages, doors, and wandering monsters. You can use minis or counters to track your place in the dungeon and your current dungeon level. You’ll meet different challenges every time you play.

    c) You could ignore the dungeon-generation rules and use it as a literal dungeon: go through this door and find some stairs; go through this passage and find some treasure. If you do it this way, it will be the same dungeon every time.

    d) You could hang it on the wall: OK, I drew it, so I’m not impartial, but I think this poster is pretty nice looking. It’s got a central portrait of the recurring page-border adventuring party from the 1e DMG, and along the edges there are lots of details to stare at.

    Sounds good, right? You should


    Edition: The poster is pretty edition neutral. It can be used as is for D&D, 1e, and 2e as it is. For 3e, for specific tricks/traps you need to convert the occasional “save vs. magic” to “Will save” or whatever. For 4e, you’ll use “will defense” and probably double all trap damage. I play in OD&D and 4e games, and I plan to use it for both campaigns.

    Here’s what it looks like: The poster is not fully inked and cleaned up yet, but I can show you a couple of pieces. Here’s a section called “Stairs”, and here’s the DMG chart upon which it’s based.

    Here’s what the kickstarter is setting out to do: First, I’m raising money to print the poster. Second, I also want to reprint my OD&D Wandering Monsters poster, which is now sold out.

    I’d like to get the posters delivered to pledgers by April 17, when Wizards reprints their first edition core books. My Dungeon Map generator gives you some dungeoncrawling fun to indulge in while you wait for Wizards to reprint some adventures.

    If we raise extra money, I have a bunch of bonus goals in mind.

    If we raise $1000 more than my goal, everyone who pledged at least $23 gets a free poster, either this poster or the OD&D wandering monster poster, their choice.

    If we raise more than that, I have some other donation plans: I’d like to be able to donate 50 or 100 posters for the Gygax Memorial Fund to sell at Gen Con. I think the posters might be able to raise a couple thousand dollars.

    I’m pretty sure I must have sold you by now so