basic d&d will be the 5e SRD

June 9th, 2014 by paul

Lots of questions were raised by WOTC's vague promise of a "program" for third-party D&D publishers. Will there be something like 3e's open-source-style OGL license? Something like 4e's limited and revocable GSL? An "app store" model where products must be approved by WOTC?

To me, one key piece of evidence suggests that pretty much everything in the free "Basic D&D" PDF will be open content, making Basic D&D the 5e equivalent of the d20 SRD.

A preamble first: The d20 OGL license pretty much gave away the store. Most of the PHB is in there, apart from character creation, leveling, and a handful of iconic and original D&D monsters: beholder, gauth, carrion crawler, displacer beast, githyanki, githzerai, kuo-toa, mind flayer, slaad, umber hulk, and yuan-ti. There's really no point in 5e trying to protect any OGL monsters, since they're already basically free content. But WOTC probably doesn't want to give away anything ELSE to Pathfinder and other competitors. So if there's ever a 5e OGL-type open license, we'd expect it to exclude the beholder, gauth, carrion crawler, etc.

OK, here's my evidence for Basic being released under an open license. In last week's live Q&A, Mike Mearls listed a bunch of the "iconic monsters" in the Basic PDF. He read a pretty big list: chimera, centaurs, orcs, ghosts, giants, mages, acolytes, warriors, mummies, ogres, skeletons, ochre jellies, dragons, giant spiders. Notice anything missing? How about any monsters from D&D's non-OGL list: beholder, gauth, carrion crawler, displacer beast, githyanki, githzerai, kuo-toa, mind flayer, slaad, umber hulk, and yuan-ti?

Apart from dragons, the beholder is arguably D&D's most iconic monster - it's the 5e Monster Manual monster - so its absence from Basic's list of "iconic D&D monsters" is striking. Its absence really makes sense only if everything in Basic has to be open content.

I don't necessarily think that 5e will use the OGL itself. There might be more carefully-worded protections against competitors. But I do think that the license will be free; it won't require WOTC approval like the 4e GSL; and it won't be arbitrarily revokable without cause like the GSL.

There's one problem with my theory. I doubt the 5e license will be MORE permissive than the OGL. We know that Basic will include character creation information, and character creation and leveling hasn't been released under any previous license.

I bet that character creation/leveling details will included in Basic but be specifically excluded from the license. That would be pretty easy to do. For instance, in the 4e Player's Handbook, the character creation info and leveling details are all in Chapter 2, "Making Characters." The 5e Basic equivalent of the "Making Characters" chapter might be specifically excluded from the new license. Everything else in Basic will, I predict, be fair game for use by third party publishers.

How sure am I in my hunch? Sure enough that I'm going to prepare my next D&D publishing project for 5e.

More 4e errata! Player’s Handbook art

June 6th, 2014 by paul

Fourth edition came under a lot of flak for its endless rules errata. If you kept up with all the updates, your copy of the PHB had scribbled corrections in each page. However, an errata document was never issued for the art.

PHB4CoverWith 4e at the end of its run, here is an errata update for all the art in the PHB. Please make the following changes.

On the cover:

The female wizard should not have her boobs AND her butt facing the viewer. Replace her with a Strong Female Character.

The male dragonborn fighter no longer has rivets in his armor shaped like lucky charms.

Erase the F tattooed on the female wizard's forehead. Change it to an A+

Replace the dwarf fighter in the background with a halfling thief (the party should probably have a striker).

Inside the book:


uuOn page 22, Moradin should no longer use the same symbol as the Unitarian Universalists. They might get mad if their symbol is co-opted by an imaginary dwarf god. No, wait, we just checked with them and they're fine with it.

Character Races

letoOn page 42 (Half-elf), replace the picture of Jared Leto with a picture of a half-elf.

On page 34 (Dragonborn) move the male dragonborn one inch higher so you can't tell whether the female dragonborn has boobs.


The badass dragonborn in ruby armor on page 101 has been informed of the existence of the badass dragonborn in ruby armor on page 6, and has killed him and taken his stuff. The dragonborn on page 101 is now wearing the ruby ring. Page 6 should now have a picture of a dragonborn in an open casket, with a dwarf in the background leading a Unitarian Universalist funeral service.

Character Classes

rogue1Page 122, rogue powers: replace the rogue doing the action hero landing (one palm on the ground, one leg cocked, one arm cocked) with a picture of Black Widow from Iron Man II.

On page 148, the warlord with seemingly unnecessary spikes on the right side of his helmet, on his left gauntlet, and on his right boot is now being threatened by a very tall monster to his right, a medium monster to his left, and a very short monster to his right.

rogue2Page 195, feats: replace the rogue doing the action hero landing with a picture of Black Widow from Iron Man II.


Page 203, paragon tier feats: The picture of the fighter running away from a red dragon should be moved to the cover of the 1983 Mentzer red box.

General Errata:

bellyYou may draw supplemental belly shirt/sideboob armor on any of the female adventurers on the cover and on pages 4, 34, 40, 46, 48, 50, 96, 103, 129, 171, 191, 213, 234, 296, and 313, and on the male adventurers on pages 58 and 234.

the first zombie apocalypse story?

May 29th, 2014 by paul

Zombie stories have been around for a while: the D&D zombie descends from the Hiatian version, a dead person raised by necromancy.

The current, highly successful "apocalypse via fast-spreading zombie disease" meme is pretty new, and it's eating the Haitian/D&D version for breakfast. D&D might have backed the wrong undead horse here. George Romero's 1978 Dawn of the Dead might have been the first zombie-apocalypse movie that explicitly used the word "zombie." (Night of the Living Dead, 1968, called them "ghouls." And D&D ghouls might owe a lot to Night of the Living Dead.)

The essential elements of the "zombie apocalypse" story are, as far as I can tell:
1) Nearly everyone is turned into a zombie.
2) Survivors scavenge supermarkets or camp out in the woods and blow zombie heads off with shotguns.
3) No one is purposely animating corpses. Zombie-itis is contagious.

Minus the word "zombie", this story is a little older than Night of the Living Dead. Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, 1954, is often mentioned as the first zombie apocalypse-type story, although its bad guys are called "vampires."

I think that Walter M. Miller might actually be the first writer who wrote a really modern-style zombie apocalypse story. In Dark Benediction (1951), the monsters are called "dermies," and they're not quite as simplistic as your World War Z/The Walking Dead brain chewers. Still, apart from the word "zombie," it's got all the apocalypse phobia/survivalism fantasy/xenophobia it needs to be an official part of the genre.

Here's a chunk of the first page. Watch it hit all the highlights:

Always fearful of being set upon during the night, Paul slept uneasily despite his weariness from the long trek southward. When dawn broke, he rolled out of his blankets and found himself still stiff with fatigue. He kicked dirt over the remains of the campfire and breakfasted on a tough forequarter of cold boiled rabbit which he washed down with a swallow of earthy-tasting ditchwater. Then he buckled the cartridge belt about his waist, leaped the ditch, and climbed the embankment to the trafficless four-lane highway whose pavement was scattered with blown leaves and unsightly debris dropped by a long-departed throng of refugees whose only wish had been to escape from one another. Paul, with characteristic independence, had decided to go where the crowds had been the thickest—to the cities—on the theory that they would now be deserted, and therefore noncontagious.

The fog lay heavy over the silent land, and for a moment he paused groping for cognizance of direction. Then he saw the stalled car on the opposite shoulder of the road—a late model convertible, but rusted, flat-tired, with last year's license plates, and most certainly out of fuel. It obviously had been deserted by its owner during the exodus, and he trusted in its northward heading as he would have trusted the reading of a compass. He turned right and moved south on the empty highway. Somewhere just ahead in the gray vapor lay the outskirts of Houston. He had seen the high skyline before the setting of yesterday's sun, and knew that his journey would soon be drawing to a close.

Occasionally he passed a deserted cottage or a burned-out roadside tavern, but he did not pause to scrounge for food. The exodus would have stripped such buildings clean. Pickings should be better in the heart of the metropolitan area, he thought - where the hysteria had swept humanity away quickly.

Suddenly Paul froze on the highway, listening to the fog. Footsteps in the distance—footsteps and a voice singing an absent-minded ditty to itself. No other sounds penetrated the sepulchral silence which once had growled with the life of a great city. Anxiety caught him with clammy hands. An old man's voice it was, crackling and tuneless. Paul groped for his holster and brought out the revolver he had taken from a deserted police station.

"Stop where you are, dermie!" he bellowed at the fog. "I'm armed."

You know what would be a fun D&D campaign? Not the classic "zombie outbreak in a fantasy world:" fantasy worlds are pretty well equipped to handle zombies. Imagine instead a "D&D heroes appear in a modern-day zombie apocalypse" game. (Old-school games are full of these types of stories: in Gygax and Arneson's games, D&D characters sometimes appear in space or in Boot Hill, and German tank units appear in the midst of fantasy battles.) The apocalypse story is based on the conceit that most modern people can't hack a true emergency. Imagine six battle-hardened D&D characters - including a cleric with Turn Undead - finding themselves in a bleak zombie fiction like, say, The Walking Dead. They'd own. It would be interesting to see if they could turn the tide.

wild grassland encounters

May 21st, 2014 by paul

Non-cultivated grassland is a hard terrain to get a handle on because we just don't have a lot of it in the modern world. Africa is a good place to look, along with frontier America.

You need to come up with some reason why any grassland hasn't been snapped up by farmers, herders and empire-builders. One possibility is that it's defended by something - nonhuman nomadic tribes, giants, dinosaurs, dragons - too scary for armies to deal with. Another is that it used to be civilized and it's been conquered by forces of chaos - orc hordes, undead. In the latter case, the plain is a likely location for dungeons and ruins. Each large area of uncultivated plain probably has its own story.

Here's my random encounter table for grassland. Asterisks are for new monsters that I haven't actually designed yet (I like to make up monster stats on the fly, inspired by evocative names.)

Unending Plain1 Unique monster. You must invent it on the spot, or pull it out of some sourcebook the players have never seen. The PCs will never meet another one of its kind.
2 nomadic people (human barbarian, elf, halfling, centaur, *runner, *ostrichtaur)
3 civilized people (caravans, bandits, armies, pioneers, *landsailors, *city that walks)
4 animal (lion, cheetah, antelope, ostrich, snake, toad)
5 giant herbivore (buffalo, ox, mammoth, elephant, aurochs, rhino, bronto, *mushroom walker)
6 horde (orc, gnoll, hobgoblin, undead)
7 dire animal (*war lion, *saurus, *insect steed, sabertooth, al-miraj, giant toad)
8 dangerous flora (*slumberwood, *green fuzz, *swordgrass, *purpleflower queen)
9 ambush animal (cockatrice, basilisk, ankheg, bullette, trapdoor spider, *flying viper)
10 dog (hyena, wild dog, blink dog, worg, *wicked fox, *hunger hound)
11 fairies (*grass people, *butterfly folk, *mouseling, naiad)
12 swarm (bugs, stirges, *bloodbirds, *singing ants, *undead vermin, *manswarm)
13 sinister ruin (dungeon or underground dweller, troll, ogre, demon, undead, cultists, *crawling cairn, *wild gate)
14 wild steed (horse, pony, giant rabbit/butterfly/bee/grasshopper/kangaroo, *zebracorn)
15 weather (storm, tornado, *firestorm, *vortex, *starfall, *stinking cloud, *cloud chariot, wind walker)
16 flyby (dragon, griffin, hippogriff, *flying turtle island, *air whale, *giant falcon)
17-18 signs of the recent passing of 19-20
19-20 the thing that prevents this plain from being cultivated (hordes, giants, dinosaurs, dragons, undead, beholders, *mad colossi, *sunwraiths, *fire cattle). Once you've chosen it, all 17-20 encounters for this grassland relate to this threat.

D&D analysis of some crazy ad in the subway

May 16th, 2014 by paul

There were about 1000 copies of this promotional flyer in my subway car:


click to enlarge

This guy's clearly a snake oil salesman trying to prey on those in need. And he wastes a lot of paper. But I'll say this for him.

He's a level 11 cleric.

Here's the spell breakdown:


click to enlarge

a unified notation for ascending and descending AC

May 1st, 2014 by paul

I like to make system-neutral stuff. I don't particularly like writing "AC 8 (12)" or "AC 12 (8)" or "AC: as leather armor". Here's my proposal for a terse way to write any-edition Armor Class: Just write the AC bonus. Thus:

AC: +6

I think it's pretty intuitive that this guy's AC is 16 in 3e (counting up from 10), AC 4 in 1e (counting down from 10), and AC 3 in Basic (counting down from 9).

This system doesn't collide with any other notation. "AC: -6" has meaning in other systems but "AC: +6" doesn't.

It also works within the expectations of each edition.

  • 3e+ prefers addition to subtraction. Converting +2 to 12 is barely even addition; it's more like squinting.
  • Old editions don't see what's so hard about subtraction.
  • Let's throw another system in here. ACKS uses ascending-from-0 AC. So all it has to do is ignore the plus sign.

    Monster publishers: if you like it, start using it. If it needs a name, I suggest "Unified AC Notation" and you can link to this page.

  • stand up for the little guy

    April 24th, 2014 by paul

    You may have heard about the fcc's latest threat to net neutrality.

    It's worth it for us, as blog readers and writers, to make our voice heard over this particular issue. We benefit from living in this special time in history when people can easily communicate with each other without having their conversation moderated by third parties. We don't need to hope that our little communiques get into the Forum in Dragon Magazine, or wait for APA newsletters to be mailed by overworked enthusiasts. Our exposure to new D&D ideas is not limited to those endorsed by Gary Gygax or Mike Mearls in TSR- or Wizards- published books.

    Here is the email I sent to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler ( I sent similar emails to,,, and Mike.O'

    please stand up for net neutrality

    Hi Tom,

    I note with sadness that the FCC is proposing to give "special access" to internet content providers who pay more. In effect, this penalizes the small websites, web resources, startups, and e-businesses that make the internet special.

    I strongly urge you to reconsider this position. Do you want to be the FCC who supports everyone's equal access to the internet, or the FCC who allows big corporations to squeeze out the little guys?

    Hoping for the best,
    Paul Hughes

    Joesky tax: although net neutrality seems important to me and my hobby now, it might not be the issue that defines the age. In the D&D world, for every ancient threat that is once more rearing its head, there must be a bunch more that never really went anywhere.

    In case your players' History checks are getting dusty, here's a dungeon for you. Upon its gate is written, in antique Common, "HE WHO BLEATS THE BLEAT OF COWARDS SHALL BE THE MEAT OF STRONGER MEN."

    A hard History check reveals that, four hundred years ago, the PCs' country made peace with a neighboring country. The peace was not universally accepted, and a popular ballad called the peace proclamation "the Bleat of Cowards." Few now remember the war or the ballad.

    The dungeon was once a compound of rebels who wanted to extend the war. It contains a mix of rotten war equipment, singleminded undead locked in history, and traps.

    Protecting the keep's treasure is a Magic Mouth which asks a series of seemingly nonsensical questions: "Are ye with Bruno or the King?" "Did Harold die in vain?" "Shall the Cuperdines enter the confines of the city?" Correctly answering the questions requires a) a hard History check to determine the historical context of the question and b) the knowledge that the dungeon's inhabitants were pro-war. If the players don't know the answers, they may guess or head back to the city to hit the library.

    If a PC answers a question incorrectly, he or she is turned into a sheep. The Magic Mouth will then recite some gloating speech about "Thus shall your insides match your out, and King Cuperdine shall have mutton for dinner" that really only made sense at the time.

    The sheep curse requires a Dispel Magic or a very hard Arcana check to lift; possibly the sheep PC will have to be taken to the city for expert treatment. If it's market day, the sheep PC might get mixed up in someone else's herd! But don't extend this too far: the sheep player will want his or her body back at some point.

    forbidden chemical elements

    April 17th, 2014 by paul

    More old-timey chemistry from Appendix N author A. Merritt:

    What of that radiant unknown element upon the moon mount Tycho? What of that element unknown to us as part of earth which is seen only in the corona of the sun at eclipse that we call coronium?
    -The Moon Pool, 1918

    The Moon Pool is as much sci-fi as it is fantasy or horror, despite its author's influence on H. P. Lovecraft. It draws on the archaeology and chemistry of its day, much of which is delightfully wrong. Failed historical science is a great source for fantasy.

    So apparently, in the 19th century, scientists thought they'd discovered a new chemical element which only existed in the the sun's corona. They called it "coronium." It turns out they were misreading their spectrographs and they were just seeing highly ionized iron. It's a great name, though: as selenium's name suggests "moon stuff", coronium is "crown stuff" or "sun stuff."

    We all know that, as mithril is super-silver that trumps steel, there must be a super-gold that trumps mithril. Maybe it's coronium. When the gods take up arms, I bet they draw shining golden swords: at least, in Greek myth, Haephestus is always making gold weapons and armor for people (a shield for Achilles, a breastplate for Hercules, bow and arrow for Apollo.)

    How rare is coronium? Dwarves mine for mithril, but can they even find a coronium vein? My guess is that such weapons are only the gifts of the gods.

    And what of that other unknown element we find glowing green in the far-flung nebulae—green as that we had just passed through—and that we call nebulium?
    -The Moon Pool

    Merritt mentions another fun fake element: nebulum (or nebulium or nephelium), another spectrographic mistake, "discovered" in 1864 by William Huggins. Huggins thought it was an element that only appeared in nebulae. It turned out to be ionized oxygen. Again, nebulum is a great name for a magical material: "cloudstuff."

    One more Lovecraftian detail about nebulium: its spectrographic light signature wasn't identified as oxygen right away because scientists thought it was impossible that such super-ionized atoms could exist long enough to emit light. Such an unearthly electron state, impossible except in the voids between the stars, is seriously called a "forbidden line". It's forbidden light! That's reminiscent of Lovecraft's story "The Colour Out of Space", where unusual cosmic light causes all sorts of eldritch trouble.

    Nebulium seems like a great counterpart to coronium. It might be used to forge the weapons of the evil cloud giants, or it might cast invisibility on its owners, or it might radiate darkness or even madness. It could even be the strange black metal of drow weapons. It might be the harbringer of beholders, grell, and other creatures of the far realms.

    Every Book's a Sourcebook


    April 10th, 2014 by paul

    s13I found this Appendix N pseudoscience in A. Merritt's 1918 book The Moon Pool:

    My theory is that the moon rock is of some composition sensitive to the action of Moon rays; somewhat as the metal selenium is to sun rays. [...] When the light strikes them they release the mechanism that opens the slab, just as you can open doors with sunlight by an ingenious arrangement of selenium-cells.

    Now I didn't know anything about selenium except vaguely that it's probably an element. Maybe you know more than me. Maybe you know that it was discovered in 1817, named after the moon, and used in light sensors from the 1870s until the 1970s. Maybe you know that its few commercial uses nowadays include glassblowing and as an ingredient in baby formula. Well, you're very smart. I had to hit wikipedia to learn all that.

    Here's why selenium is a nice drop-in in a D&D game.

    It sounds familiar and scientific, without having any specific connotations to most players (unless your players are all smarter than me too). It's a little more technological-sounding than the traditional D&D magic materials (adamantium, mithril), and so it matches well with the strangely scientific bent that's demonstrated by D&D dungeon builders, with their elevators, gas traps, and other automatic devices. Its use is an ancient secret of a bygone empire.

    It's steampunk. It was exciting during the Victorian era: Alexander Graham Bell used it in a photophone, which is a largely forgotten 1870's version of fiberoptics, and it was still cool in 1918 when Merritt was writing. Like all great steampunk technologies, it's been superseded by other technologies. (Silicon is a more efficient semiconductor, and polyvinylcarbazol a more efficient photoconductor, than selenium.)

    It's got a cool name. Selene is the Greek moon goddess's name that also gave Selune her name. "Selenium" suggests some moonlight-drenched stone, maybe mined on the moon, maybe holy to its goddess, that calls to the heavens. It's convenient that, in real life as in Merrit's horror fantasy, it can be used to drive sun-powered (or moon-powered) devices.

    OK, how do you use it in D&D?

    In my last game session, the players captured a giant squid space ship, piloted by mind flayers, with a cargo of selenium in its belly. The PCs sold it to starfaring elves. The elves alloy it with mithril to make +1 mithril weapons. There's a catch: selenium swords are sensitive to sunlight the same way drow weapons are, and they're prone to damaging "sun rust". (This is a further development of an idea I had before.

    You could also use it the way selenium is used in real life, or in The Moon Pool, except magicked up: a selenium sensor can cast a spell under specific light conditions just the way a Magic Mouth can speak words under specific conditions. This ties into another idea I've blogged about, an electrum mirror, but with a different metal.

    Selenium could be used to make magic items that only function in moonlight. A selenium sword that's normal during the day and a +1 glowing sword in moonlight is a nice minor magic item that'll be valuable to low-level characters.

    Throw a pinch of selenium dust in the air and the light of a full moon shines down, even in a dark dungeon. This could be useful for banishing shadows, spotting werewolves, or summoning fairy creatures.

    Real life selenium is poisonous, but I bet that D&D adventurers carry little vials of selenium powder ("moon dust"). A mouthful of this stuff turns you into a fey creature, which means you're immune to charm and don't need to sleep. You don't need rest either: you're immune to the effects of exhaustion for a full day. You can hustle all night and day if you have to. Over good roads, you might be able to cover 200 miles. Disadvantage: your blood runs thin. Every time you take an injury, you take 1d4 extra damage. Furthermore, after 24 hours, the exhaustion catches up to you.

    WTF, Mentzer Red Box fighter?

    April 3rd, 2014 by paul

    2648721WTF, Mentzer Red Box fighter?

    Where's the rest of your party? The fighters on the Holmes and Moldvay basic sets brought their wizard friends, and that was against smaller dragons. A wizard would be a big help here. Don't try to tell me that your wizard is off-screen. That's a weaselly lie, and I would not expect it of a noble barbarian like you.

    WTF, Mentzer Red Box fighter? According to the bestiary in the Red Box, that Red Dragon has 10 Hit Dice at least - probably more, based on how big it is and how many ewers he has. But let's say it only has 45 HP. How much damage do you do? 1d8+6, max, if you have 18 Strength and a +3 sword?

    Let's say you hit every round, and kill him in five rounds. How much damage is it doing to you in the meantime? Its breath weapon does damage EQUAL TO ITS HIT POINTS. Even if you make your saving throw, you take 22 HP of damage on round 1 of combat. And next round it's going to be a claw/claw/bite, which is not much better. Shouldn't you tackle some more appropriate solo opponent from the Red Box, like a Crystal Statue or a Thoul?

    What's your Armor Class anyway, Mentzer Red Box Fighter? Don't try to tell me that that's a plate mail mankini you're wearing. That's chain mail - if you're LUCKY. Even with a shield, and 18 Dex to go with your 18 Strength, that makes your AC what, 1? That dragon is hitting you more than half of the time. Over the course of four combat rounds, you're probably getting tagged with at least 12d8 worth of claw/claw/bite. That's 54 average damage, for a total of 76 so far.

    WTF, Mentzer Red Box Fighter? How many HP do you have anyway? Don't tell me you have an 18 Con to go with your 18 Strength and 18 Dex?? Even if you rolled all 5's on your d8 Hit Dice, you'd need to be at least level 11 to survive 76 damage (after level 9, you only get 2 HP per level).

    OK, so you might beat the dragon. If you have 18 Str, Con, and Dex; a +3 magic sword; you make your saving throw vs breath weapon; and you never miss an attack over five rounds. AND IF YOU'RE LEVEL 11. In which case... what are you doing on the D&D box for characters level 1-3? WTF?