Humour in D&D

This post was difficult to write, for a number of reasons.

  1. It’s ironic, but writing about comedy can be distinctly unfunny. Is there anything more humourless than picking apart a joke to explain how it works?
  2. Comedy is a matter of personal taste. Take my comedy touchstones, for example: films like Monty Python, Airplane!, Anchorman, Four Lions, and In Bruges. Great films: but universally loved? No.
  3. Roleplaying games are collaborative and unpredictable: in D&D, comedy just happens. You don’t need to force it. So write about it?
  4. I have really bad RSI thanks to working from home, and I want to be able to sleep tonight without clutching my arm in pain. (If you think that was a contrived attempt at a joke, it wasn’t.)

So, with all this considered, why write about humour in D&D? Because it’s a fundamental part of the game. Having written a few posts recently that are rather academic or serious (eg, this one), I want to take a break and embrace something fun.

This post is meant to spark inspiration and give a few tips about using humour in your games. If I’ve missed something, comment at the end!

Serious fun: why humour matters

To the uninitiated, the D&D rulebooks can seem pretty heavy going or even intimidating. You’ve got acronyms and appendices, tables and diagrams, columns of 9.5-point text, and all that before you get to the polyhedral dice (‘what the heck is a d100?’). The content itself can get pretty dark, too. There’s violence (lots of it), death, evil, horror: often all four. ‘All this for a game?’

Drama teachers often refer to drama as serious fun, and I think this is a useful term for roleplaying games as well. D&D is serious, but it is also fun. The seriousness enables the fun, and the fun offsets the seriousness. In fact, the more serious the game becomes, the more you need humour to dial things back.

Wizards of the Coast have clearly embraced this in 5th edition. Look at this table, for example, from page 104 of the Player’s Handbook:

Wild Magic Table in 2021 | Dungeon master's guide, Magic table, Dungeons  and dragons homebrew

This is hilarious!

Look at the monsters, too: 5th edition has brought back classics like the flumph, the modron, the flail snail, the almiraj, and the froghemoth, and featured them prominently in published adventures.

Speaking of which, the published adventures are stuffed with comedy. In fact, generally speaking, the darker the theme, the more humour you will find. Thus, Curse of Strahd has Blinksy toys and the crypts of Castle Ravenloft, Tomb of Annihilation has Yellyark and mad monkey fruit, and Descent into Avernus has Lulu the hollyphant and abyssal chickens. Sometimes, D&D needs comedy.

Going too far

And the man in the back said everyone attack… | Dragon Heist

As I said in starting, comedy is a matter of personal taste. Few things in life are universally funny, and many things are almost universally unfunny. So, as any successful comedian will tell you: know your audience, and read the room.

It’s important to have a few safety tools in place for when a joke goes south and someone gets hurt. Again: D&D is serious fun. Monte Cook’s Consent in Gaming is an excellent (and free) PDF, and the Pathfinder baseline is a great starting point for mature content, too.

There’s another way in which humour can go ‘too far’. What if the comedy starts to derail the campaign? What if playing D&D becomes secondary to piss-takes and wisecracks?

For some people, piss-takes and wisecracks what D&D is all about! A session is an opportunity to hang out and make jokes. But if you feel it’s going too far, then talk to your players. If they want something light-hearted, then perhaps you’re fighting a losing battle by trying to make the campaign more serious. But at the same time, you are meant to be having fun as a DM, too, and your wishes matter just as much as anyone else’s. So if you feel that the game is becoming irrevocably silly, see if there’s a compromise to be had. Ultimately, though, if the rest of the group wants something very different to you, then maybe it’s better to step back for a while. No D&D is better than bad D&D.

Funny business

For the most part, D&D will be funny without you even trying. Players come up with madcap schemes all the time, and every failed dice roll is an opportunity for bathos. If you feel things are getting a bit serious, though, here are some suggestions for ways to inject a little levity in your game.

Absurd/surreal comedy. This is already a big part of D&D, as, thanks to dice rolls, much of the humour is so unpredictable. Subvert your players’ expectations now and then with something bizarre or incongruous. Descent into Avernus, for example, features a subplot where a night hag asks the players to watch her den while she goes off to visit a spa.

Anachronism. Deliberate historical inconsistency can be great fun. The Monkey Island series does this brilliantly, with vending machines, T-shirts, and fast-talking, arm-waving used car ship salesmen. Anachronism can also be hilarious in D&D. After all, it’s not like it’s particularly medieval to start with.

Jany on Twitter: "Just finished Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge as well.  As an adult, I gotta say, I can now truly appreciate Stan's epic  salesmanship 😄 Time to dive into the

Callbacks. If your campaign has been running for a while, throw in an allusion to something that happened ages ago. It’s a nice reminder of how far the players have come.

Caricature. Characters in D&D don’t need to be three-dimensional and psychologically real. NPCs are often little more than cartoons. Embrace this.

Catchphrases. Curse of Strahd has ‘Is No Fun, Is No Blinksy’. I enjoyed throwing this in at unexpected moments.

Gadof Blinsky | Curse of Strahd | Obsidian Portal

Lean into failure. By default, D&D only offers three outcomes: success, failure, and critical hits. Many players use ‘fumbles’ (critical misses) to add a bit of humour to combat.

Music. If you have background music in your games, this can be a great source of comedy. For example, ‘Yackety Sax’ (better known as the Benny Hill theme) is fanastic for chase sequences.

Parody and pastiche. Not quite the same thing: parody is generally mocking, whereas pastiche is more celebratory. Both are fun. Try imitating the style of a film, TV series, or video game, and see if the players notice, or model an NPC on a real-life celebrity or historical figure, subtly or more obviously.

D&D 5E - Check Out WizKids' Infernal War Machine Mini | EN World | Dungeons  & Dragons | Tabletop Roleplaying Games

Definitely not a Mad Max reference

Randomness. There are lots of funny random tables in 5th edition D&D, like the sorcerer’s wild magic table and the deck of many things. Randomness is great!

Ribaldry. Also known as blue comedy, this includes anything that’s off-colour, risqué, or bawdy, like innuendo. Another one that needs to be used in moderation. Use safety tools to check whether this is something your group is (occasionally) OK with.

Roasting. Insults are funny! Perhaps best between NPCs: insults between players can become personal unintentionally (or, I suppose, intentionally).

Toilet humour. Really? Weeing, pooping, farting? Well, if they’re good enough for Chaucer and Shakespeare, they’re good enough for you. Once again, though, use this sparingly, and know your audience.

Trick monsters and cursed items. Part of D&D from the very beginning, you don’t want to overuse these, but, deployed sparingly, they’re great. Mimics can be particularly fun.

Art] Modern day mimic. : DnD

Look! Trap monsters AND anachronism! Credit: u/not_that_guy_at_work

Voice acting. What are the funniest voices you can do? You don’t have to be Matt Mercer for this, and it’s a great way of making a memorable NPC. A nice trick is to have a voice that is somewhat unexpected. For example, your death knight could speaks with a high-pitched squeak, and your ancient red dragon could have a tickly cough.

Wordplay. In the catacombs beneath Castle Ravenloft, there is a crypt for Sir Klutz Tripalotsky, who ‘fell on his own sword.’ Puns are great. So are spoonerisms, malapropisms, alliteration, and so on.

Why so serious?  

I thought I would end with six rules of good comedy (or at least, comedy where D&D is concerned).

  1. Safety first. Yes, comedy can be cruel, but this is meant to be a fun game. Never lose sight of that.
  2. Know your audience. Comedy is subjective, and not everyone has the same tastes as you. If in doubt, imagine the game is rated PG.
  3. Timing is everything. Whether you’re a player or the DM, think about the ‘beats’ of the game and read the room. Don’t ruin a powerful moment with a bad joke, and try not to smother a potentially funny situation with unnecessary seriousness.
  4. Keep it natural. The motto of the Cambridge Footlights is ars est celare artem: ‘the art is to conceal the art’. Comedy shouldn’t be forced, and some of the best comedy is grounded and natural.
  5. Start with character. This comes from Brent Forrester, the head writer for The Office (US version). It’s good advice.
  6. Be warm. Before he wrote the hit sitcom Gavin & Stacey with Ruth Jones, James Corden turned to the great British playwright Alan Bennett for advice. His one tip: ‘be warm’.

Life is short and full of meanness. Cynicism is cheap. Joy is hard. Be warm. Bring a bit of humour to your game.

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Gods in D&D

Do you have deities in your campaign? How many? What are they called? What are their portfolios? Are they active in the world or mysterious and withdrawn?

For some DMs, deities are one of the most enjoyable aspects of world-building: a fun way to define their setting. For others, gods and demigods are just a headache, a chore, and something they wish the game could do without. In this article, I’m going to look at the history of deities within the game and some suggestions for how to introduce divinity into your game in perhaps more imaginative ways.

A (selective) history

Do clerics need a deity? Many players assume the answer is ‘yes’ and has always been the case. The reality is perhaps a little more nuanced.

Image result for 1974 basic set D&D

I wasn’t able to consult the 1974 boxed set (‘original D&D’), but from what I could find online, there is no list of deities, and clerics are more or less a half-way house between ‘magic-users’ and ‘fighting-men’. I’m not even sure there are any references to ‘gods’ or ‘deities’ in the original Men & Magic booklet. What’s more, from what I’ve read of Gygax and home campaign, he didn’t bother much with specific deities in the earlier years either. Since his players’ characters were generally low level, he assumed they were unlikely to interact directly with the gods, so he glossed over them. Some of his players ended up taking matters into their own hands and started to call on deities from Greek and Norse mythology and even Howard’s Conan stories. When his players evenntually asked Gygax to give them a deity of his own creation – something less vague than just ‘the gods’ – he jokingly invented Saint Cuthbert. In-game stats were eventually presented for Thor, Zeus, and so on in the fourth D&D supplement, Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes, in 1976.

Image result for D&D red box basic set

The 1977 ‘Basic Rules’ (as opposed to ‘Advanced D&D’) describes clerics as ‘humans who have dedicated themselves to one or more of the gods.’ Are these gods listed? No. The ‘red box’ of 1983 goes one step further, saying that the cleric is ‘dedicated to serving a great and worthy cause [. . .] usually the cleric’s Alignment; for example, a cleric may be dedicated to spreading law and order.’ Strikingly, it goes on to say this: ‘In D&D games, as in real life, people have ethical and theological beliefs. This game does not deal with those beliefs.’ Correspondingly, no gods or deities are listed.

From what I can see, the 1st edition AD&D Player’s Handbook (1978) also doesn’t have much to say on the subject of gods. It states that ‘a cleric is dedicated to a deity, or deities’ (italics mine), and that their spells are ‘bestowed upon them by a deity for correct and diligent prayers and deeds’, but again, no list of deities is provided or referred to.

Image result for dieties and demigods

This all changed in 1980 with the publication of Deities & Demigods, a 144-page hardcover supplement which provided background details and in-game stats for 17 different pantheons: some from fiction (eg, Cthulhu), some for nonhumans (eg, Moradin and Gruumsh), and the rest from real-life sources (eg, Egyptian, Norse, and Celtic). Deities & Demigods also addressed questions like how clerics of these religions should behave and how they are affected by the afterlife. The book was later repackaged as Legends & Lore to avoid potential conflicts with fundamentalist Christians, but the content remained more or less the same.

Like the first edition, the 2nd edition of AD&D (1989) does not provide a list of deities. Again, the Player’s Handbook refers to the cleric (now a type of ‘priest’) as ‘a believer and advocate of a god from a particular mythos,’ but goes on to say this, which is interesting: ‘In the simplest version of the AD&D game, clerics serve religions that can be generally described as “good” or “evil.” Nothing more needs to be said about it; the game will play perfectly well at this level.’ The game continued to assume that clerics were servants of a divine power, however, and a second edition of Legends & Lore was published using much of the original text.

An interesting change came in 2000 with the advent of 3rd edition. Here, as with the red box, the Player’s Handbook explicitly states that ‘some clerics devote themselves not to a god but to cause or source of divine power.’ The gods of the Player’s Handbook were borrowed from Greyhawk. Deities and Demigods returned to D&D in April 2002 and discussed different models of religion, from the traditional ‘loose’ pantheon of D&D, to monotheism, dualism, and animism. 4th edition in 2008 arguably tightened things up again, stating that a cleric ‘must choose a deity compatible with [their] alignment’.

And now 5e. Here again, as in fourth edition, it is assumed that clerics are ‘divine agents’. Indeed, the Player’s Handbook even states that ‘the most important question to eonsider is whieh deity to serve and what principies you want your character to embody.’ An appendix, ‘Gods of the Multiverse,’ provides a summary of various fictional and historical pantheons, but with none of the detail of Deities and Demigods.

Your world, your rules

Image result for shar selune

Todd Lockwood

Many D&D players assume that a D&D world has to have gods. Not just gods, but a pantheon of gods: something for every alignment, every domain. This is certainly an option, but there are others.

Monotheism. Perhaps the people of your world worship an overdeity or creator god. The different domains could be different aspects of the same deity. Perhaps the deity is worshipped by different names in different churches. Is the god neutral, at the centre of all things? Good: a force for hope? Or evil: an inescapable darkness that haunts every corner of the world?

Dualism. Instead of a pantheon, you could have just two deities in opposition with one another. What do they represent? Sun and moon? Law and chaos? Life and death? In the same way that the world of The Dark Crystal is ruled by the mystical urRu and the hideous skeksis, your world could be defined by two primal forces. Perhaps, like the urRu and the skeksis, your deities started as a single god that split somehow into two.

Pantheons. The default for many D&D worlds: perhaps you want lots and lots of gods. If so, consider the various cleric domains, the nine alignments, the twelve core classes. Is there someone for everyone to worship? You need to decide if it is a ‘tight’ pantheon where all the gods belong to one religion (eg, the gods of Asgard or Mount Olympus) or a ‘loose’ pantheon like hte gods of Greyhawk and Faerûn. Are there different deities for different ancestries: gnomes, dwarves, elves, and so on?

Animism. This is the idea that spirits inhabit every part of the natural world: animals, plants, stones, fire, wind. In Legend of the Five Rings, for instance, shugenja cast their spells by calling on spirits called the kami to aid them.

Cheats. Do you want to steal the deities from another campaign setting, or skip over the lore completely? Don’t feel bad about it! You can always introduce new elements later, and if it’s good enough for Gygax, it’s good enough for you. Even if you use the gods of Asgard and Olypmus in your world, they will still be defined by your fiction, not the myths and legends of our world. (I would, however, avoid real-life religions: apart from running the risk of offending someone, it’s also jarring, and potentially breaks the immersion in a fantasy setting.)

Whatever model of divinity you go with, you should probably think about your answers to some of the questions below.

  • Are the gods all powerful, or are there limits to their divinity?
  • What do they know that mortals do not?
  • How did they become gods? Is it possible to ascend to godhood or give it up? Can divinity be stolen or earned?
  • Do they need worshippers? Why do mortals worship them? Out of love? Fear? Gratitude?
  • Are the gods benevolent, hostile, or indifferent? Are they active or distant?
  • Where do they reside? Why do they live there? Can mortals reach them?
  • Can they die? If so, how?

In my current campaign, which started as a dark fantasy one-shot, the gods are almost forgotten: they slumber in distant worlds beyond the prime material, and the churches and cults that do exist are both corrupt and corrupting. Yet there are occasional glimpses of divine power: an answered prayer, perhaps, or an ancient artifact. It’s a story thread I plan to take further.

And no religion, too

Finally: there’s nothing wrong with a godless campaign setting.

‘Blasphemy!’ Really? Let’s take an example of how it might work.

Image result for aeris gainsborough

Meet Aerith Gainsborough (originally transliterated as ‘Aeris’). If that name sounds familiar, it’s probably because you played Final Fantasy VII. Aeris is never given a class in the game, but she is clearly part of the white mage tradition within the Final Fantasy franchise. She has high magic stats, fights with rods and staves, and her special abilities (‘limit breaks’) heal the party. In D&D, she would probably be a healing-domain cleric. She even grows flowers in a church. Yet there is no organized religion in the world of Final Fantasy VII. Neither are there deities, only ‘the Planet’ and a mysterious, ethereal substance called ‘Lifestream’.

To me, Final Fantasy VII is a really neat example of how you can have divine magic without deities. Don’t feel beholden to what has gone before: make your gods unique.

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How Medieval is D&D?

In my previous post, I examined the origins of the 5th edition Monster Manual and concluded that D&D was much less ‘European’ than might be supposed. Of the 215 monsters I looked at, around half, maybe more, originated elsewhere, and many, perhaps a third, were an invention of the game itself.

I see this claim online fairly frequently: that D&D is at its heart a medieval European fantasy. So, having looked at what we might call the geographic origins of the game, I thought I would have a closer look at its historical sources. Is it as medieval as people think?

As with last week, a few provisos. It bears repeating: this is a blog post, not scholarship. It is not going to be exhaustive. It is not going to be rigorously scientific. Please unclench before you take me to task. In terms of my own academic background, I have a reasonably good degree in Old and Middle English literature from a reasonably good university, but I do not claim to be an expert and would be more than happy to take on board constructive criticism. For my own sanity, I will be focusing again on the core rulebooks of 5th edition D&D, specifically the Player’s Handbook. For what it’s worth, though, I don’t think the edition matters that much: the mechanics may be different, but when it comes to the fundamentals, there’s a huge degree of crossover. But hey, if you disagree, I’ll read your blog on it.

The term ‘medieval’ is fraught with problems. It is often erroneously depicted almost as a kind of ‘dark age’ between classical civilization and the Renaissance – a ‘Middle Age’ – and this is horribly unfair. And what a huge generalization, too: this is a period of almost 1,000 years! Focusing on a ‘middle period’ between the fall of Rome and the (European) Renaissance also encourages us to adopt an unhelpfully eurocentric lens. There was a medieval world outside Europe, and Europe engaged with it.

For the purposes of this article, I am looking at the time period from around the end of the 5th century to the end of the 15th century. But even this is arbitrary. People didn’t go to bed one night in the Middle Ages and wake up in the Renaissance.

I’m going to focus on three main chapters: races, classes (which, by extension, considers spell lists to some extent), and equipment.

Races

I excluded Player’s Handbook races from my post last week on the basis that none of the peoples therein are featured in the 5th edition Monster Manual. Some commenters on Reddit pointed out that dwarves and elves (and so half-elves, too) are European in origin, which is quite true. Both are found in Old and Middle English, in medieval German, and in Old Norse, and are therefore perfectly medieval. Tieflings, too, are more medieval than you might think. The name itself is an invention for D&D, constructed from German tief and -ling (‘deep’ and ‘offspring’), but the concept of humans with demonic ancestry is found in medieval stories. Merlin, in some stories, is considered a cambion. I would give this one a pass.

Halflings, however, are more dubious. They are clearly based primarily on Tolkien’s hobbits, and hobbits were more or less a creation of Tolkien himself. The same goes for orcs (and therefore half-orcs). While they are mentioned in Beowulf, the word used there, orcneas, probably meant something closer to ‘evil spirits’. Tolkien himself said that he revived the word ‘only because of its phonetic suitability’: his orcs, and therefore the orcs of D&D, are not particularly medieval at all.

What about gnomes? Sorry: not medieval at all. The original Latin term term, gnomus, originates in Paracelsus in the 16th century, and the word is first attested in English in the early 18th century. Renaissance at best. Their characterization as cunning inventors is probably Victorian.

Overall, then, the ancestries of D&D are pretty medieval in origin, and always have been. Of course, once you go beyond the core rulebooks, this breaks down considerably (viz leonin, tortles, and aarakocra, among many, many others).

Character classes

Let’s get one thing out the way. None of the D&D classes are realistic. Not one. Not the barbarian, not the fighter, not the rogue. They are a product of fantasy. All of them. By 20th level, they are essentially superheroes. Trying to compare them to real-life medieval figures is a dead end.

However: we can examine the extent to which they resemble medieval fiction. Are wizards much like the ‘magicians’ of medieval romance, for example? Or was Merlin more of a druid or a warlock? How much are bards like the Pied Piper of Hamelin? Those sorts of questions.

  • The concept of an uncivilized or primitive warrior can be found the world and throughout history, but the D&D barbarian is clearly based primarily on Conan the Barbarian and pulp. That said, the barbarian’s rage feature evokes the berserkr of Old Norse sagas and poetry.
  • The bard is pretty medieval, taking inspiration from characters such as the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Will Scarlet, and Taliesin, as well as the Viking skalds. The spell list doesn’t really fit with the way magic is conceptualized in medieval stories, though, and it would probably be pretty limited and rather boring if it did.
  • It’s hard to say where clerics come from exactly. OD&D was pretty brief, saying in essence that they were a mix of ‘fighting-men and magic-users’. While they bear some resemblance to medieval crusaders like the Knights Templar, their ability to turn undead is more reminiscent of B-movie vampire-hunters like Van Helsing.
  • Real-life druids were religious leaders in ancient Celtic cultures. While they appear as sorcerers in some medieval Irish and Welsh stories (most notably the Táin Bó Cúailnge), they were essentially extinct by the time Christianization was complete. Still, their signature wild shape feature recalls the shapeshifting abilities of Merlin, so in some ways they fit the mould of a medieval magician rather well. They wouldn’t have wielded scimitars or worshipped trees, though.
  • Fighters get a pass for being medieval, but only because they are so completely generic. Warriors are more or less universal.
  • The monk class was probably created either by Dave Arneson, one of the co-creators of D&D, or Brian Blume, one of the early game designers and a huge fan of kung fu. Gary Gygax also claimed that the class was inspired by The Destroyer (the Remo Williams series). Shaolin monks certainly practised martial arts in the Sui and Tang dynasties, but from the 8th century to the 15th – ie, most of the European Middle Ages – there is no evidence of Shaolin monks participating in combat.
  • The paladin class is largely based on the character of Holger Carlson in Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions, which in itself is drawn on the twelve legendary knights of Charlemagne. The knight-errant is very much a figure of medieval romance: historically accurate, no, but culturally of its time? Very much so.
  • The ranger is based on Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. Like fighters, though, hunters and woodsmen are fairly universal. Artemis and Orion would fit the bill, as would Robin Hood and Jack the Giant Killer, two medieval legends. The spellcasting, though: that’s D&D through and through.
  • Regarding the rogue (then ‘thief’), Gygax stressed the influence of Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever and Roger Zelazny’s Shadowjack. The 2nd edition AD&D Player’s Handbook gave examples of thieves such as Reynard the Fox, Puck, and Ali Baba. And thieves, like warriors, are essentially universal.
  • The sorcerer was new to 3rd edition D&D, where it was essentially a variant wizard (previously called ‘mages’ or just ‘magic-users’). It was felt that the latest fantasy fiction made Vancian magic seem outdated. Regardless, neither wizards nor sorcerers have much in common with the magicians of medieval romance. Merlin’s powers revolve primarily around shapeshifting and prophecy, for example, not fireballs and magic missiles. Medieval in name only.
  • Finally, what about the newest of the core classes, the warlock? The pact of the fey is in some ways closer to the medieval concept of magic than either the sorcerer or the wizard. Infernal pacts, too, are thematically appropriate, as witches and warlocks were feared for their deals with the devil, and as I mentioned above, Merlin himself was depicted as a cambion in some stories. Eldritch blast, though, is again rather flashy for medieval magic, and the Great Old One stuff is clearly Lovecraftian in flavour.    

How medieval is this, on average? I would argue ‘somewhat medieval’ at best. Sure, you could construct a fairly ‘medieval’ party with a fighter, a rogue, and a paladin, with maybe a druid or a ranger thrown in, but that’s being selective. You could just easily create a party consisting of a monk, a wizard or a sorcerer, and a bard or a cleric, and it wouldn’t be particularly medieval at all.

I’m going to skip Chapter 4 (Personality and Background) and move onto Equipment.

Arms, Armour, and Equipment

Am I going to dissect every item in the Player’s Handbook to evaluate how medieval it is? Hell no, because that would be about as interesting for me as it would be for you. Generally speaking, the D&D equipment list is pretty medieval. However, a few highlights:

  • Studded leather is not a historical term. Gygax was presumably thinking of brigandine or jack of plate. Chainmail, too, is something of a neologism, and this armour would have been called a hauberk, a byrnie, or simply ‘mail’.
  • Full plate arrived pretty late in the medieval period and was really more of a Renaissance armour. Its association with ‘knights in shining armour’ is largely the result of 16th-century jousting armour.
  • Overall, the weapons table is reasonably medieval. Like plate armour, though, the greatsword (which, confusingly, was probably referred to as a longsword) was really more of a Renaissance thing, the rapier even more so. The trident, conversely, was really a pre-medieval weapon, famously used in the hands of Roman gladiators. The hand crossbow is mostly a creation of fantasy.
  • The biggest issue with the weapons table is not so much what is included but what is missing. One word: guns! This is a long-standing and enduring convention of ‘medieval’ fantasy, but it is still rather bizarre. Europeans had knowledge of gunpowder from as early as the 1200s, and handheld firearms were starting to be used from the 1300s, yet they are usually presented in D&D as an optional rule in the DMG. If you really want to be authentically medieval, then add guns.
  • What about adventuring gear? This is a long old list, and much of it is fine, even for a purist. The biggest exception is probably the spyglass, as telescopes were not invented until the 17th century. The word backpack is anachronistic (20th century), but there would have been shoulderbags in the medieval period that fulfilled the same purpose.
  • And musical instruments? Again, a pretty medieval list. The viol was maybe a bit late, more Renaissance, but that’s splitting hairs.

Overall, D&D’s approach to equipment is pretty medieval, if you overlook a few specific items and don’t ask too many questions about where the guns are.

From a medieval point of view, though, there’s one massively fundamental problem with the D&D approach to equipment, and it’s this: D&D is capitalist! Or at the very least, it is a cash-based economy where feudalism and manorialism are conspicuously absent. There is a great post on this at Blog of Holding. As Paul Hughes put it, D&D is in essence ‘a swords-and-sorcery world, empty of government, where anyone can pick up a sword, become a hero, and live the American dream.’

Conclusions

Image result for D&D 5e

The big question, then: is D&D medieval? My view: eh, not really. Sure, it has many, many medieval elements. But it is hardly purist, and some of the most iconic D&D elements like wizards, clerics, full plate, and greatswords, are not especially medieval at all. The game draws on pulp, classical mythology, Renaissance swashbuckling, and of course, modern fantasy fiction. Many of the monsters of D&D, as I wrote about last week, are not particularly medieval either.

Obsessing over D&D’s medievalism is a creative dead-end. It probably won’t lead to better fiction or better gameplay. It’s not particularly imaginative. In fact, it’s rather limiting. D&D is fantasy, not history, and this has always been the case. Even if the game’s roots lie in historical wargaming, the game we play now is something completely different.

Image result for combat wheelchair ruined D&D

Finally, it is interesting (and worrying) to reflect on where this call for medievalism comes from. There are gatekeepers on Reddit and Twitter who proclaim that monks have no place in D&D because they are not ‘medieval European’. I don’t see them calling to get rid of wizards, though, or the creatures from Greek mythology, or mummies, or zombies, or the hundreds of monsters that D&D has invented for the game. Why is that? Could it be that there is another, more troubling reason for singling out the only ‘Asian’ character class for criticism? And there are D&D players on Twitter who defend the use of racism and slavery in their games – ‘because it’s medieval’ – or get upset about the combat wheelchair, for the opposite reason. I don’t see them calling for the inclusion of firearms in the core rules. Neither are they proposing that we should adopt a feudal, manorial economy in our games instead of a free market based on gold pieces. Not with the same vociferousness, anyway. And they don’t have any problems with a knight in full plate mowing down orcs with a greatsword, even though it’s not much more medieval than a hobbit parachuting into battle while firing flintlock pistols.

As a hill to die on, it all looks a bit silly, not least because these calls for medieval realism are often founded on totally inaccurate assumptions about the realities of the medieval world. But one has to wonder whether it was ever really about ‘medievalism’ in the first place, or whether this has always been a figleaf for something much more concerning.

Medieval fantasy is inherently romanticized and backward-looking: it harks back to a mythical age of knights, castles, dragons and what have you. But it’s fantasy first. And if ‘medieval’ for you is a byword for a world which is white, male, ableist, and so on – if that’s important to you, if that defines your ‘fantasy’ – then you should maybe stop using medievalism as an excuse for your own prejudices. The game moves on. Maybe you should, too.

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Where Do D&D Monsters Come From?

There are some quite contentious claims out there about the origins of D&D’s creature catalogue. Was D&D inspired primarily by Tolkien and European folklore, for example, or was it more international? How many monsters did Gary Gygax invent, and how many are based on real-life mythologies?

I decided to do some research. For the sake of brevity (and my own sanity), I have restricted myself to the monsters listed in the 5th edition Monster Manual. I ignored the generic NPCs in Appendix B and the real-life fauna of Appendix A (including dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures like the sabre-toothed tiger). I also chose to ignore:

  • giant versions of real-life fauna (unless they have a specific literary origin somewhere);
  • swarms (unless they refer to creatures without stats elsewhere, like rotgrubs);
  • animated versions of real-life things (like flying swords and awakened shrubs);
  • ‘demicreatures’ like half-ogres and half-dragons;
  • juvenile or mature versions of the same creature (eg, the young remorhaz);
  • and, in general, subtypes of the same creature (eg, abominable yetis, grick alphas, different types of zombie, and so on).

Doing so gave me a list of 215 creatures to research.

A couple of disclaimers. Number one: this is a blog post, not scholarship. I may have made some mistakes here. In fact, I almost certainly have. By all means let me know in the comments! Number two: it is impossible to be completely scientific with such an exercise. Some monsters have very specific origins, like the couatl and the yeti. For others, pinning down an exact source is liking trying to decide who invented hummus. For example, many of the monsters that came to D&D via Tolkien were themselves based on other mythologies. [Update: I would also add a third disclaimer: this post is not exhaustive! I would go mad trying to write about every single one of the 215 creatures, so please accept my apologies for not doing so.]

I referred to a number of sources in making this but was particularly indebted to u/phdemented on Reddit. Do check out their posts for more detail!

Without further ado . . .

French (2)

There might not be many French creatures in the Monster Manual, but at least they can claim to have given D&D its most fearsome foe. The tarrasque (one ‘r’ in the original) is a Provençal legend about a fearsome dragon-like hybrid. The D&D tarrasque, however, is actually much closer to a Godzilla-esque kaiju. The word ogre is also French, and has other cognates in D&D like ‘Orcus’ and ‘orc’.

Update: there is some debate as to where gargoyles (‘gargouilles’) belong here. I include them further down, since the architectural feature pre-dates the mythological creature, but it’s a fair claim!

Roman (2)

Lemures (devil fodder in D&D) were restless, malignant spirits in Roman mythology. Manes (demon fodder) were also di inferi or ‘those who dwell below’, but according to St Augustine, where Lemures were generally bad souls, it was uncertain whether Manes ‘deserve well or ill’.

German/Central Europe (3)

Given the cultural influence of the Brothers Grimm, I was surprised how few D&D creatures could truly be traced back to German origins. I could only pin down three: the kobold (which is related to the colour cobalt), the imp, and the mephit (which was essentially just another form of imp, originally). Doppelgangers are not dissimilar to the changelings of Nordic and Germanic stories, but similar changelings appear in other cultures.

Unique origins (3)

The couatl is the only creature I could find with a Mesoamerican origin. The clay golem originated in Jewish folklore. Zombies come from the traditions of Haiti, which may in turn have roots in west or central Africa.

Egyptian (3 4)

Although mummified corpses have been found on every continent, the D&D mummy is clearly based on those of ancient Egypt. The jackalwere and the the androsphinx are also Egyptian in origin. (Curiously, the sphinx also existed in ancient Greece, but there it was usually a woman, not a man.) Update: while griffons appear in ancient Greek texts, their origins lie in Egypt and Iran.

East Asian (5)

The dragon turtle (Lóngguī) is a legendary Chinese creature that combines two of the four celestial animals of Chinese mythology. The gold dragon was also based on Chinese dragons. Kenku and oni, meanwhile, have their origins in Japanese mythology.

One curiosity here is the arcanaloth. @DeerServas on Twitter suggested that this may have come from The Book of Imaginary Beings where it is listed as ‘the Chinese Fox’. This may in turn have come from the Japanese stories of kitsune. [Update: another possible origin is the French stories of Reynard the Fox. We might not be able to find a true source for this one!]

Arabic, Islamic, and Persian (6)

The djinni, efreeti, ghoul, manticore, marid, and roc all come from one or more of these sources. (The term ‘efreeti’ is actually a mistake, as Keith Ammann helpfully points out, and we should probably call them ‘efreets’.) Curiously, the last of the four genie, the dao or earth genie, is an invention for D&D. Presumably the original game designers wanted one genie for each of the four elements. Update: the griffon probably belongs here or in the Egypt category, too.

Indian and South Asian (6)

Devas, nagas, and rakshasas appear in both Hindu and Buddhist mythologies. Mariliths, though an invention of D&D, bear a strong resemblance to Hindu and Buddhist demons, and in a similar vein, weretigers closely resemble rakshasas. Finally, yetis are a cryptid from the Himalayas.

Toys (6)

Bulettes.jpg

Seriously? Yes! Six of the most iconic D&D monsters – the bulette, carrion crawler, owlbear, purple worm, rust monster, and umber hulk – were invented by Gary Gygax based on a bag of cheap plastic toys.

English (6)

Several, including bugbears, duergar, and will-o’-wisps. Hobgoblins can be found in English and Scottish stories. Cloud giants were inspired by the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. The basilisk and the cockatrice have a shared origin (and indeed, the terms were almost interchangeable).

Occultism (6)

Several ‘outsiders’ like the azer, barbed devil, barlgura, bearded devil, planetar, and solar have their origins in occult texts like the Ars Goetia (17th century) and Lewis Spence’s An Encyclopedia of Occultism (1920).

Real world (6)

As I wrote at the outset, I tried to rule out real-world monsters from this research, but a few special cases are worth mentioning. The axe beak (Phorusrhacidae) and the dire wolf (Aenocyon dirus) both have prehistoric analogues. The quipper is essentially a piranha. The salamander of legend is rooted in the exaggerated stories about the amphibian of the same name. Gargoyles and scarecrows are both objects in real life.

Norse/Nordic/Scandinavian (6 7)

I was surprised by how few of the monsters in the Monster Manual were drawn directly from Norse mythology. From what I could find, only the drow, ettin, fire giant, frost giant, and kraken are truly Scandinavian in origin. [Update: the wights of Tolkien are inspired by draugr, which also feature in the video game Skyrim.] Despite the name, D&D trolls are really not much like the trolls of Norse mythology at all: along with the paladin class and the D&D aligment system, they are mainly indebted to Poul Anderson’s novel, Three Hearts and Three Lions.

Scottish, Irish, and Celtic folklore (7)

The banshee and the fomorian are Irish in origin (the name ‘Balor’ was in fact the name of a fomorian originally), while behirs and green hags (also called shellycoats) are Scottish. Merrow are Scottish and Irish. Pixies are Celtic and sprites are Cornish.

European folklore (7 8)

A fair few here: the goblin, the night hag, the nightmare, the revenant, and the werewolf (which goes back to ancient Greece and Rome). The cambion, too, is a European creation. Shakespeare’s Caliban was a cambion.

Update: although dragons are fairly universal and found it many, many cultures worldwide, D&D’s dragons are clearly modelled after European types (the gold dragon being an exception). Curiously, though, and this is something Tolkien himself points out in Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, dragons are actually rare in European literature, and there are only a few that are significant.

Tolkien (9 8)

For many years, Gary Gygax downplayed how much D&D borrowed from Tolkien’s work. Possibly for legal reasons: the threat of copyright action from the Tolkien estate prompted D&D to stop using terms like ‘balrog’, ‘ent’, and ‘hobbit’. Nevertheless, Tolkien was clearly a huge influence on the early game, and it’s primarily from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit that we get creatures like balors, giant eagles, orcs, treants, wights, worgs, and wraiths. [Correction: wights are based on draugr from Norse mythology, so I have moved them there.] While I wouldn’t go so far as to put them in this category, the werebear is reminiscent of Beorn from The Hobbit, and red dragons closely resemble Smaug. Goblins and stone giants are also extremely Tolkienesque, despite appearing in other cultures and traditions.

Universal/multi-origin (13 12)

Many of the creatures in the Monster Manual have no single origin and appear around the world in various forms. These include: dragons, ghosts, hell hounds, hill giants, iron golems, lizardfolk, lycanthropes, merfolk, skeletons, stone golems, unicorns, vampires, and wyverns. They are, in essence, ‘citizens of the world’. Claims can be made for some of them – unicorns may have originated in the Indus Valley Civilization, possibly as a representation of aurochs – but they are not uncontentious, and there are often conflicting claims elsewhere. Vampires, for example, can be found in almost all cultures in some form or another, including Asia, Africa, the Americas, and ancient Mesopotamia.

Works of fiction beside Tolkien (14)

A long list! Horned devils come from Dante (the lazy Malebranche of the Divine Comedy); elementals, in their D&D form, seem to be inspired by the work of Michael Moorcock; flesh golems are clearly modelled on the Monster in Frankenstein; grimlocks are essentially the morlocks of The Time Machine.

And there are more: the demilich and the wererat resemble creatures in Fritz Leiber’s work; perytons seems to come from Jorge Luis Borges; the name gnoll may have come from Lord Dunsany’s The Book of Wonder: How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art upon the Gnoles Update: Gary Gygax himself attested that the gnoll was a mash-up of a gnome and a troll (!); and the grell seems to be based on the medusae of Jack Williamson’s Three from the Legion (1980) [Update: user on Reddit pointed out that grells appear to pre-date this source. Thank you, kinarism!]. Thri-kreen may have been modelled on the four-armed green martians in John Carter of Mars (1917), while liches can be found in the work of several 20th-century writers, including Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Howard, and Ambrose Bierce. Finally, displacer beasts, despite being considered the intellectual property of Wizards of the Coast, have an uncanny resemblance to the Coeurls of A E van Vogt.

Greek myth (18 17)

Here was perhaps my most interesting find. Once you exclude real-life fauna and creatures invented by the game itself, Greek mythology is the single biggest origin of 5e monsters.

The list is huge: centaurs, chimeras, cyclopes, dryads, empyreans (essentially titans), erinyes (the Furies), griffons, gynosphinxes, harpies, hydras, lamias, medusas, minotaurs, pegasi, and satyrs are all clearly taken from Greek myth. I would also add two more: the storm giant (which closely resemble Zeus) and the wereboar (which reminds us of Circe and the swine in the Odyssey). The hell hound and the iron golem, too, while not exact copies of any creatures in Greek mythology, do nonetheless bear a resemblance to Cerberus and Talos respectively.

One creature I excluded from this category, though, was the gorgon. Despite the name, they are not based on Greek myth! They have some similarities to the bulls of Colchis or Khalkotauroi, but their true origins seem to be Edward Topsell’s 1607 bestiary The Historie of Foure-Footed Beasts. In Greek mythology, the gorgons are the three snake-haired sisters: Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa.

Update (1 Feb): another creature I excluded from this list was the skeleton. ‘But Jason and the Argonauts!’ I hear you cry. Turns out, the Spartoi of Greek myth are simply warriors, and never described as skeletons. You can blame Harryhausen and his wonderful special effects for that one.

D&D (at least 20)

Another huge list: so many of the monsters of D&D seem to be an invention of the game itself. Many of the demons – for example, the glabrezu, hezrou, nalfeshnee, and quasit – came from the imagination of Gary Gygax: so, too, did blink dogs, various oozes, troglodytes, and the xorn. Other D&D creations include ankhegs, githyanki (a name which came from George R R Martin), mind flayers, modrons, twig blights, and the iconic beholder, although these did not necessarily come from Gygax. Flumphs and quaggoths were player created. These creatures may have never existed if it were not for D&D.

The winner: unknown! (at least 50)

And then there’s the rest! About a quarter of the monsters I looked at had unclear origins, and we might never know who created them. Like the list above, they may very well be a product of the game itself. Examples include dracoliches, driders, ettercaps, flumphs, gricks, mimics, myconids, otyughs, quaggoths, ropers, shambling mounds, and vrocks. Some may have real-life origins (the original ochre jelly art resembled a giant amoeba), and others may be nods to particular cultural references (ultroloths recall the stereotypical grey alien), but others are just a bit of a mystery.

Honourable mentions

Although none of the monsters in D&D are taken from Lovecraft directly, several are ‘Lovecraftian’ in form. These include aboleths, chuuls, ghasts, ghouls, gibbering mouthers, kuo-toa, mind flayers, and slaadi. Likewise, a number of creatures from the Monster Manual can be seen in similar forms in 20th-century pulp fiction. These include aarakocra (Flash Gordon), black puddings (The Blob), and the gelatinous cube.

Conclusions

I learned a lot from doing this. I was suprised by the extent to which it borrowed from Greek myth, for example, and how few creatures, comparatively, were Norse in origin. My research does seem to bear out the suggestion that D&D’s origins are heavily weighed towards Europe, however: the number of monsters from Asia, Africa, and the Americas is really quite small, with none that I could think of from Australia and Oceania. What struck me most of all, though, was the sheer plurality and inventiveness of the game’s sources, emphasizing, once again, that there is a place for all storytellers in the world of D&D.

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Four Problems with Fantasy (and How to Fix Them)

Don’t get me wrong: I love fantasy roleplaying games. After all, I do write a blog about Dungeons & Dragons. But I also believe that fantasy, and D&D in particular, is not without its problems, some of which can be fixed, or at least mitigated.

In this article, I plan to run through four issues I see with D&D and fantasy RPGs generally, and then offer some possible solutions to them.

1. Tired tropes and chronic clichés

Sidharth Chaturvedi on Twitter: "D&D: Yawning Portal Tavern. From 'Dungeon  of the Mad Mage.' AD: Kate Irwin. This was SO MUCH FUN to paint. Also one  of the few that I didn't

Wizards of the Coast

D&D has been around for nearly half a century, and there has been a huge amount of innovation in that time. But there are also some tired, tired tropes that have been done to death. Dwarves with Scottish accents. Everyone’s an orphan. ‘You all meet in a tavern.’

As TV Tropes explains, tropes are tools, and they’re not necessarily a bad thing. There is nothing new under the sun, after all, and even well used tropes can be subverted or deployed skilfully. But tropes can definitely be overused, becoming shallow, predictable, or unoriginal. And in a genre that revolves around magic and imagination, that’s a death blow.

To some extent, fantasy is an inherently conservative genre. It is nostalgic for the past. It draws on ancient myths and legends. It is almost pastoral: a land of beautiful landscapes and wild adventure, an escape from modern life. Roleplaying games like D&D emerged from historical war games, and for many gamers the association between fantasy and the medieval is pretty unbreakable. (Incidentally, D&D is not, and never has been, a particularly realistic simulation of the medieval world. Apart from being curiously resistant to the inclusion of gunpowder, which was invented in China in the 9th century, D&D has Renaissance-level technology like telescopes and rapiers, completely ahistorical technology like studded leather and hand crossbows, and a wealth-based, free-market economy: no feudalism for adventurers, it would seem.)

Of course, not all fantasy need be like this, and there are numerous fantasy settings that reinvent traditional tropes in exciting ways. Final Fantasy VII, arguably a form of eco-fiction, uses an industrialized setting with an environmentally destructive megacorporation. Eberron takes inspiration from pulp serials and film noir. Planescape is grungy, gothic, neo-Victorian, and weird in the China Miéville sense of the word.

How to fix it: know your tropes and use them carefully (this applies as much to players as to DMs). Work with your players and try new genres: try gothic fantasy, or dying earth fantasy, or D&D in space. Resist the urge to fixate too much on historical accuracy: embrace the fantasy.

2. Prejudice and discrimination

Why Orcs Are Problematic in Dungeons & Dragons

Wizards of the Coast

Buckle up: this one’s controversial.

D&D, and fantasy games in general, have been slow to adapt when it comes to inclusivity, representation, and diversity. To pick a few examples: the 2nd edition AD&D Player’s Handbook used male pronouns exclusively; Gary Gygax, a self-proclaimed ‘biological determinist’ on race and gender, believed that most ‘females’ do not play RPGs because of ‘a difference in brain function’; and in one of the first Dragon magazines, Len Lakofka argued that women should have ‘beauty’ instead of Charisma and have the ability to ‘seduce’ NPCs to make up for their lower Strength (because it goes without saying that women are physically weaker than men).

In some ways, D&D has come on leaps and bounds here. The portrait for ‘human’ in the 5th-edition Player’s Handbook is a black woman, for example, and the title page features a heroic, dark-skinned fighter. Chapter 4 explicitly declares that ‘you don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender’, adding ‘your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide.’ Gone, too, are the chainmail bikinis and sexualized poses of earlier depictions of women in fantasy artwork.

But there are still battles to be fought. The Black Lives Matter protests led to a lively debate within the D&D community about the representation of so called ‘monstrous’ races and whether orcs were fundamentally racist. Disability consultant Sara Thompson faced a backlash for her awesome combat wheelchair rules, and the suggestion that D&D dungeons can, and should, be wheelchair accessible has been met with ridicule, with some users on social media even declaring that DMs should ‘target’ wheelchair users in-game because they are ‘easy targets’: textbook ableism. And while not technically a D&D incident, Adam Koebel, the co-author of Dungeon World, had to apologize after livestreaming a sexual assault scenario, seemingly for laughs. All of these things happened last year. Sexism, racism, and ableism are, sadly, alive and well within the D&D community, and while D&D is by no means unique in having toxic views within its fanbase, it is fair to say that the game has not always moved with the times.

How to fix it: support RPG creatives from a wide range of backgrounds, and read what they have to say about the game. Think about how many of your characters are straight, white, able-bodied, and male: we are all responsible for the fiction we co-create, even if you play in a group of able-bodied straight white men, so play your part. Get away from biological essentialism by using alternative approaches like Ancestry & Culture or the rules in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. Talk about lines and veils with your group. Introduce an X-card.

3. Combat fatigue

Wizards of the Coast

5th edition D&D claims to be built on three pillars: combat, exploration, and social interaction. Why, then, is combat such a huge focus within the game?

To some extent, this goes back to D&D’s roots in wargaming. It’s certainly part of the game’s tradition, and arguably requires a lot less effort for many players than compelling roleplay might. But it’s also what the game’s mechanics reward. There is so much of an incentive within the rules to be good at combat. What is your reward for exploration, for social interaction? Inspiration? Maybe a secret door with a magic item behind it? By default, killing things gives you XP, and XP levels you up. It’s not hard to see, then, why min-maxing is a thing.

Maybe fighting things is where you get your fun. If so, don’t let me stand in your way! But I’ve had a number of experiences with players new to D&D who have been surprised by the game’s focus on killing things. ‘Why do we have to kill the goblins? Can I pet the dire rat? Is fighting the only thing we do in this game?’

There are other game systems that do things differently. The Cypher System has a nice focus on exploration, for instance, and Fate promotes storytelling over all else – so much so that it is entirely possible to run a game without fighting at all.

How to fix it: Don’t only offer XP for killing things! Consider switching to milestone XP instead. Talk to your group and see what they enjoy. Try playing other game systems for mechanics you can steal: cyphers, for example, offer a really nice way of promoting exploration. Think about how you can make downtime interesting. If you are going to run combats, make them engaging, and try to have an interesting battlefield environment. Always try to make sure that combat makes sense within the story, and, if possible, an oppportunity to be avoided.

4. Characterization over character

via Twitter (@DMEducational)

Imagine you are writing a story, in a genre other than fantasy. You’re thinking about your main character. What do you think of first?

I bet it’s not ‘race’ and ‘class’. It’s probably not ability scores, either. Yet this is how most of us create a character in a fantasy RPG. Kind of odd, no?

I’ve written about this before (‘Creating Awesome Characters’), but I think it’s something D&D players in general are weirdly fixated on. (Myself included, at times – it’s a hard habit to break.) Being a dwarf or an elf doesn’t make your character interesting, and neither does being a warlock or a paladin. There’s also something more than a little icky about the idea that a character is so defined by their biology and ancestry. Do we really need this in our storytelling? Again, other systems do things differently. There is no need to pick a race in the Cypher System or Fate, and the game is no worse off for it.

How to fix it: Again, try alternatives to D&D. See what you like. Try using the new rules for customizing your origin in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. Take time to think about your character’s values and personality: what makes them tick? Try to explain who they are without referring to their race or class.

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Far Cry in D&D

Ubisoft

I have recently been playing through some of the Far Cry games, and it occurred to me that much of what makes the series distinctive could also be fun in a D&D campaign.

On the face of it, this might be surprising. The Far Cry games are first-person shooters: D&D is a collaborative fantasy roleplaying game. What the Far Cry series does well, though, is facilitating open-world gameplay, which has been part of D&D since its earliest editions and has recently seen something of a resurgence.   

In this article, I want to examine what makes the Far Cry games special and how you could incorporate these elements into your D&D campaigns.

Key features

Ubisoft

There have been five main entries in the Far Cry series since 2004 and three standalone expansions. Let’s take a moment to pinpoint what they have in common. (Because the original Far Cry was a more typical first-person shooter, without the open-world elements, I will exclude it from consideration here.)

  • A varied, lawless land. Far Cry 2 was set somewhere in central Africa, 3 in Indonesia, 4 in ‘Kyrat’ (the Himalayas), and 5 in Montana. While these settings are beautiful, each with its own rich history, they are also presented as wartorn and sparsely populated. They might not be especially vast in real-life terms – you can walk across Kyrat in 43 minutes – but the variety of biomes makes each world more interesting to explore.
  • Memorable villains. Despite their open-world credentials, the Far Cry games usually have a strong central storyline with prominent, interesting antagonists. Far Cry 3 has Vaas, a violent, unstable psychopath: 4 has Pagan Min, a ruthless autocrat.
  • Wildlife. Far Cry 2 only really features human mercenaries, but from 3 onwards there is a big focus on animals in the world: lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
  • Vehicles. In Far Cry, you may find yourself in a car, on a boat, flying a plane, or driving cross country in an ATV. Getting from A to B quickly (and in one piece) is often part of the fun.
  • Side quests. You don’t have to stick to the main storyline, and there is a huge number of optional missions. They could involve assassinations, delivering supplies, rescuing hostages, or controlling local wildlife. Some of the NPC ‘quest givers’ are almost as memorable as the main villains.
  • Guns, guns, guns. Yes, there are a lot of guns in Far Cry. Choosing and upgrading them is part of the fun.
  • Outposts and hub towns. In order to explore the map, players have to take control of outposts: fortified strongholds guarded by mercenaries, snipers, dogs, and so on.
  • Factions. There are usually at least three factions in the Far Cry games, and the player often has to make a choice between two groups of allies.

How, then, can we adapt these elements to D&D?

Converting to D&D

Ubisoft

Many of the features listed above are already part of D&D or simply need tweaking.

  • A varied, lawless land. This is the big one, really. A Far Cry open-world game is essentially a hexcrawl with random encounters. Justin Alexander has written extensively on how to run hexcrawls (@hexcrawl is his Twitter handle!), so I would start there. It’s important to have a variety of terrain types to create a sense of increasing challenge: TV Tropes even has a page on this.
  • Memorable villains. See my post on how to run a big bad. The Far Cry villains are an excellent template for D&D campaigns.
  • Wildlife. There are stats for lions and tigers and bears in the Monster Manual, of course, but there’s nothing to stop you adding a D&D flourish to your flora and fauna. Embrace the fantasy: replace bears with owlbears, wolves with worgs, cougars with displacer beasts.
  • Vehicles. This might be trickier in D&D, considering the medieval setting, unless you’re playing a magitek campaign like Eberron. Instead, consider having a range of different mounts. Depending on the setting, this might include dire wolves, dinosaurs, flying creatures like griffons and pegasi, even dragons and wyverns.
  • Side quests. These can be generated randomly using the tables in Chapter Three of the DMG. Really! And the monster lists in Appendix B can give you a sense of what to use as adversaries.
  • Guns, guns, guns. For this, I recommend The Complete Armorer’s Handbook on the DMs Guild. At $9.95, it’s well worth your money, and gives you some really cool options for upgrading arms and armour.
  • Outposts and hub towns. This requires a bit of prep on your part. There are around 20 outposts in every Far Cry game (from 3 onward), and they are satisfying because they are a tactical challenge. So, put some maps together (or borrow one from the brilliant Dyson Logos) and come up with an adversary roster. Be sure to account for reinforcements when the alarms go off!
  • Factions. You don’t necessarily need new mechanics for this. Just think about two or three main factions, what makes them distinctive, who leads them, and go from there. As I wrote in using publish campaign settings, three big schemers is plenty. Consider using the alignment system as a starting point (eg, Neutral Good, Lawful Evil, Chaotic Evil). Sly Flourish has a good post on this, too, where he takes inspiration from Dungeon World.

Final thoughts

Ubisoft

This post is meant as a starting point, not a complete guide, so here’s some more food for thought.

  • How big a map? The DMG has some good advice on this on page 14. I would strongly consider province scale (1 hex per mile) to create a sense of meaningful travel, although kingdom scale could work after the first few levels of play.
  • Random encounters. The trick here is not to overcomplicate things. Why not make a simple table of 1d6 encounters? Or 1d12? Don’t make more work for yourself on the basis of verisimilitude. The players won’t notice it, it probably won’t make the game more enjoyable, and you’ll end up burning yourself out.
  • Level range. There are points in 5th edition D&D where the game starts to feel fundamentally different. Level 5 is a big one: spellcasters get 3rd-level spells, front liners get a second attack, and so on. Things also start to feel different around 10th or 11th level (Tier 3). Personally, I would probably go the route of the published campaign-adventures and keep this kind of playstyle to Tiers 1 and 2.
  • How many players? Given the focus on free choice and going wherever you want, this style of play could actually work well a very small party, or even one player and a sidekick (using the rules in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything).
  • Resting. Consider using the rules for slow natural healing or healing kit dependency on page 266 of the DMG. Give the players an incentive to use tactics when liberating outposts, and make sanctuaries feel precious.
  • Low magic. If you want to preserve a gritty, survivalist feel, consider using the classes in Adventures in Middle-Earth. They are roughly equivalent in power to 5th edition classes but they lack routine access to magic.
  • Reward systems. The Far Cry series tends to have multiple reward systems. For example, in Far Cry 4 you have cash (Kyrati Rupees) and experience points (which buy skills), just like in D&D, but also karma, which unlocks allies and loot, and bell towers, which, once liberated, reveal more of the world map. Perhaps you could have a ‘reputation meter’ in your game which gives the players access to new mounts and magic items.
  • Skill challenges. If you want to abstractify the outpost challenges of Far Cry 3, 4, and 5, consider using the skill challenge mechanic from 4th edition. There’s a great post on how to do this by Jon Lemich at critical-hits.com. His table for skill challenge construction shows a really neat way of upping the difficulty with each successive outpost, and could work equally well for climbing bell towers.

Would you run a Far Cry–style campaign? What would you do differently? Feel free to comment below.

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Fixing 4d6 drop lowest

How do you determine your character’s ability scores?

According to the Player’s Handbook (page 12), the default is to generate them randomly. You roll four six-sided dice and record the total of the highest three, six times (‘4d6 drop lowest’). Other options are point buy (technically a variant rule) and taking the array: 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8.

My group used to be wary of rolling stats. Most rolls in D&D have a chance of failure, but it’s rarely a failure that haunts you for the rest of your adventuring career. A chromatic orb goes wide; you miss a secret door; you don’t pick the lock. Bad ability scores, on the other hand, can feel like a lasting punishment and make your character feel less badass, less fun to play. However: over time, we’ve come to appreciate the hidden benefits of rolling. It makes your character feel more individual, more unpredictable, more ‘spiky’.  

I’ve written before about what to do if you roll bad stats (and, conversely, the character options that open up if you roll exceptionally well). I also make the case for why ability scores don’t matter as much in 5th edition as they did in previous editions. However, in this previous article, I didn’t really examine the mechanics of dice rolling themselves. And here’s my take: 4d6 drop lowest is one way of rolling ability scores, but it has its flaws. I want to explore whether there are other methods that might work better.

Probabilities

Wizards of the Coast

Full disclosure: I am not a statistician. I am not even particularly good at maths. So, if I mess up somewhere, constructive criticism is welcome.

Fortunately, we have a great tool in the form of anydice.com, a probability calculator created by Jasper Flick. Jasper has already written an article comparing 4d6 drop lowest with the default array and the older method of rolling 3d6 six times. On average, 4d6 drop lowest gives you better ability scores than the standard array. I’m fine with this: if the default array were better than rolling, there would be little incentive to determine your ability scores randomly.

However: 4d6 drop lowest can give you some weird or even unplayable stats.

Rolling low

Let’s consider for a moment what a low roll means in the world of D&D. 19.73 percent of players will roll a 6 or lower on at least one of their stats. (Granted, your chance of getting a 6 or lower on two or more stats is pretty low – one in a hundred, roughly – but hey, it’s possible.) In 5e D&D, the most popular dump stat is probably Intelligence. A character with an Intelligence of 6 is no more intelligent than an ape or a dolphin, and a character with an Intelligence of 3 or 4 is about as intelligent as an elephant or an octopus.

Here’s what low stats are equivalent to for the other five ability scores:

  • A low Strength is comparable to the strength of a bird of prey: a medium-sized vulture (Strength 7), a small eagle (Strength 6), or a tiny hawk (Strength 5). A character of Strength 4 has the physical power of a badger or an octopus: a character of Strength 3 is as weak as a house cat.
  • There aren’t any beasts in the Monster Manual with a Dexterity of 6 or lower, but a character with this score is roughly as agile as a zombie, an ooze, or an awakened tree.
  • There is one creature in 5th edition with a Constitution of 6 or lower, and that’s a gas spore. Even tiny creatures like bats and weasels have a Con score of at least 8.
  • Interestingly, low Wisdom seems to correlate with low Dex. A character of Wisdom 6 is about as perceptive as a gelatinous cube. Lower than that, and you’re looking at the Wisdom of an animated object like a rug or a suit of armour.
  • Finally, if you dump Charisma (defined in the Player’s Handbook as ‘force of personality’), you will find numerous beasts to keep you company. Bear, wolves, and ponies have a Charisma of 6 or 7, boars, crocodiles, and camels have a Charisma of 4 or 5, and frogs, lizards, and snakes have a Charisma of 3.

Suddenly, those super-low rolls seem a bit ridiculous.

Wizards of the Coast

Rolling high

What about high stats? Nearly one in ten players will roll at least one 18 for their 1st-level character (9.73 percent, to be precise), and characters have the potential to get their scores as high as 20 without magical help, even at 1st level.

  • A character with Strength 18 can lift 540 lbs and still move 5 feet per turn. A Clydesdale has Strength 18. A character with Strength 20, meanwhile, can lift 600 lbs. They can wrestle grizzlies and polar bears (Strength 19 and 20, respectively).
  • Forget cat’s grace: characters with Dexterities of 18 or higher are almost supernaturally agile, comparable to sprites and vampires. A character with a Dexterity of 20 is as agile as a planetar (angel) or a marilith (demon).
  • What’s a tough as a character with Constitution 18? King Kong, that’s what. And for Constitution 20, you’re talking trolls, golems, and stone giants.
  • Creatures of Intelligence 18 include aboleths and ancient dragons. Mind flayers have an Intelligence of 19, and liches have an Intelligence of 20.
  • The sphinxes have a Wisdom of 18, as do storm giants. In the Monster Manual, only devas and couatls have a Wisdom of 20.
  • Finally, a character with a Charisma of 18 has the same ‘force of personality’ as Count Strahd von Zarovich or Lord Soth (a death knight). A character with Charisma 20 is as charismatic as a succubus, a rakshasa, or a djinni.

The problem

Wizards of the Coast

To be clear, there isn’t necessarily a huge issue with 1st-level characters having stats as low as 3 or as high as 20. Adventurers don’t all look the same and can come from any background. On average, rolling 4d6 drop lowest will produced a balanced array, with some high scores, some average scores, and one or two low scores.

My issue with rolling is that the super high scores and the super low scores turn up more often than I feel they should. Statistically, if you have five characters in a party, it is highly likely that at least one of them will have a score of 6 or lower somewhere. This means that in most D&D parties there is at least one character with chimp-level Intelligence, or zombie-level agility, or the Wisdom of a gelatinous cube. Aren’t these people supposed to be semi-competent adventurers? Similarly, there’s about a fifty-fifty chance that one of your characters will be as wise as a sphinx, as tough as King Kong, or as smart as an ancient dragon . . . but at 1st level, when your heroes are just starting out?

For you and your table, this might not be an issue: it’s all part of the fun. But for me, it just feels a bit odd. So, how can we get around it?

Solutions

Wizards of the Coast

Of course, the simplest and least controversial solution is to not roll stats at all. Point buy and the default array limit players to scores between 8 and 15, what we might call ‘the heroic average’. You lose the ‘spikiness’ and unpredictability of rolling, but you also don’t run the risk of playing a character with the Charisma of a frog.

The second option is to introduce some kind of ‘floor’. In 3rd edition, for example, you could reroll your scores if your highest score was 13 or lower or if your total modifier was +0 or lower. While this protects against crashing out with multiple bad scores, the 18s appear just as frequently, and you can end up with some truly weird arrays like 18, 18, 12, 10, 4, 3. Unlikely, but still possible.

The final option is use a different method of rolling. There is arguably a precedent for this already: 4d6 drop lowest was probably a revision of the original ‘3d6 down the line’. The 3rd-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide also offered a variant for ‘high-powered characters’ which was essentially 5d6 drop two. While this protects better against super-low scores, it also leads to super-high scores more frequently, with nearly twice as many 18s as the default method.

Here’s my method:

  • Roll 3d6 seven times.
  • Reroll any 1s.
  • Take the best six of the seven scores.

That’s it!

With this system, you can’t roll lower than a 6. In fact, your chance of rolling lower than an 8 is very low: just 2.15 percent. Your chance of rolling an 18 is also lower, however: 5.6 percent. The average array is 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10: statistically, these stats are better than taking the default, so there’s still an incentive to roll, but there’s more of a cushion at the bottom. The super-high scores are still possible, but they are more exceptional, and, therefore, more special.

This method is easy to explain and continues to rely on d6s, the dice most likely to be in abundance. You will probably end up rolling about the same number of dice as you would do if you went with the 4d6 drop lowest method, and you’re also less likely to generate unplayable scores that need to be completely rerolled.

Here are five arrays I rolled, to give you a sense of what to expect:

  • 15, 14 13, 10, 9, 9
  • 16, 13, 13, 12, 12, 12
  • 16, 16, 15, 12, 10, 10
  • 13, 13, 12, 12, 12, 11
  • 17, 16, 13, 12, 11, 11

The biggest downside to this method is that, on average (56.53 percent of the time, to be exact), you won’t have any scores lower than 10. If that bothers you, a possible fix is to only reroll 1s once. This keeps open the possibility of rolling a 3, 4, or 5, but shouldn’t affect your chances of rolling playable stats in the main. (Think of it this way: if you roll 3d6 seven times, you will probably only roll three or four 1s, and if you reroll these ones once then you are unlikely to have more than one 1 left in the entire spread. Given that you drop lowest score anyway, it doesn’t make a big difference.)

What do you think? Would you use this method? Will you stick with 4d6 drop lowest? Or are you more of a point buy person, anyway? Add your thoughts in the comments below.

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Review: the Cypher System in Play

Monte Cook Games

Yesterday evening, my friends and I played a Cypher System one-shot. None of us had played the Cypher System (or Numenera) before, although all five of us have experience of roleplaying games generally.

Two days previously, we had agreed to try a post-apocalyptic genre: dystopian London in the near future, with a climate disaster and a complete collapse in social order. Think Mad Max meets Deus Ex meets Nineteen Eighty-Four.

We had four characters:

  • Jackson Bollox, a foolish explorer who drives like a maniac;
  • Wrigley Green, a mysterious, stealthy speaker who mutates;
  • Meat Hooks, a fast explorer who scavenges;
  • and Cobalt Moss, a mechanical techno-warrior who wears power armour.

Here are my observations at the end of a three-hour session. Before I start, a hat-tip: Justin Alexander’s system cheat sheet was a godsend, and if you are thinking of playing a session of the Cypher System, I highly recommend you have it in front of you.

Pros

Monte Cook Games

Character creation is streamlined, intuitive, and relatively speedy. (I wrote about this in more detail in my previous post here.) The system does a great job of facilitating different genres and playstyles.

Combat is fast and narrative-led. Having players roll all the dice frees up the GM considerably. I wasn’t twiddling my thumbs by any means – I found I was constantly thinking up target numbers, for instance – but my turn was over very quickly, and the focus was more on description and imagination than dice rolling and rules calls.

Dice rolls offer varied degrees of success. In D&D, a 20 is an automatic hit and a crit, and 1s are automatic failures, but only on attack rolls and death saves. Most of the time, rules as written, your roll is either a success or a failure. In the Cypher System, 17s, 18s, 19s, and 20s offer you slight boosts to your attack rolls, like the chance to stun an enemy or deal extra damage, and 1s give the GM a free ‘intrusion’: a complication of some kind, rather like the ‘compel’ mechanic in Fate. (I see ‘free’ intrusion, by the way, because GMs can actually make intrusions at other times, too: the only difference is that the player normally gains XP for an intrusion, but on a natural 1, they don’t have a choice.) In other words, a quarter of your d20 rolls in combat are going to be interesting.

Mundane equipment is largely abstracted. All light weapons do 2 damage, for example, and armour is essentially just damage reduction. There are optional rules for making weapon types a bit more distinctive – crushing weapons ignore armour, slashing weapons are more effective on unarmoured foes – but the crunch is minimal. There also isn’t much of an economy: items are essentially expensive, very expensive, inexpensive, or somewhere in the middle, and a few very rare items are ‘very exorbitant’. Some players won’t like this very much, as they want the opportunity to optimize, but, to me, a character’s equipment isn’t of much narrative interest anyway, and I welcome the chance to handwave it a bit. The focus becomes them as characters, not the gear they’re carrying.

Cyphers are fun. If you’re not familiar with the concept, cyphers are essentially single-use abilities that characters pick up in the course of their adventures. Unsurprisingly, they are the Cypher System’s ‘big thing’. Cyphers might be potions, pills, nanotechnology, smartphone apps, gadgets . . . anything. They can also be subtle if you’re running a game without obvious fantasy elements: a stroke of luck, a haunting song, a bolt of inspiration. Because cyphers are single-use, they don’t run the risk of ‘breaking the game’ in the way that magic items do in D&D, and because characters are only allowed to have a few at a time, there’s an incentive to use them regularly.

Damage and recovery is handled well. Much has been written about the weirdness of D&D’s hit point mechanics, and various attempts have been made to come up with something more naturalistic. (Think about those ridiculous moments where a character withstands a ton of damage, from a dragon, say, or a bad fireball, only to be taken down by a rat bite.) The Cypher System doesn’t iron out these inconsistencies completely, but it has nice mechanics for taking and recovering damage which feel a little more realistic.

Cons

Target Numbers take a bit of getting used to. In D&D, it’s actually quite rare that a DM has to come up with a DC on the fly. Whether it’s Armour Class, a save DC, a spell effect, or something else, you probably have the DC in front of you somewhere, and if you don’t, then the difficulty categories are quite broad: 10 is easy, 20 is hard, 30 nearly impossible, and so on. In the Cypher System, I found I was constantly having to make a call as to what the Target Number would be. Perhaps that’s down my inexperience with the system, however.

Light weapons seem ineffective. This was a weird one. In the Cypher System, damage is a flat number, not a roll, and light weapons all do 2 damage. An opponent’s Armour is also a flat number, reducing damage like Damage Reduction in D&D: medium armour, for example, provides an Armour of 2. So here’s the thing: if you’re a character with a light weapon – a knife, say – and you’re up against an opponent in medium armour (eg, chainmail), your 2 damage is reduced to zero every time you hit, and you would essentially have to roll a 17 or higher to do any harm at all (17+ deals extra damage in the Cypher System). Perhaps I’ve missed something, but this seems a little debilitating.

There is no defined skill list. Some players might welcome this, but I felt skills in the Cypher System could be better explained. The system presumes that you do have skills – you can be ‘trained’ or ‘specialized’ in skills, for example, and both have defined in-game effects – but new players aren’t given much guidance as to what skills are available. Don’t get me wrong: skill lists are often handled badly in tabletop RPGs, 5th edition D&D included, but having no skill list at all isn’t necessarily better than having a bad skill list.

Fantasy magic is going to feel very different to D&D. Let’s say you want to play a wizard-type character who can throw fireballs, channel lightning, put monsters to sleep, that sort of thing. In the Cypher System, you would probably be some kind of adept: perhaps ‘an intelligent adept who casts spells’. Your character focus would give you a spellbook, but you would only get one readied spell per tier, from a choice of two. You might get a few spell-like abilities from being an adept, like the ability to hover or become invisible, but the choice on offer is considerably more limited, and less crunchy, than what D&D players might be used to.

Players used to ‘levelling up’ might be disappointed. Character advancement works quite differently in the Cypher System: there are only six ‘tiers’ (not levels), and it is emphasized that gaining experience points is not a goal in itself. That said, unlike in D&D, XP provides other rewards, like rerolls, wealth, artifacts, long-term contacts, and story benefits like a home or a new job.

Implications for D&D

At the end of the session, we talked a bit about what we liked and disliked about the system, how it compared to D&D, and – crucially – whether we would want to play a Cypher System game as a full campaign.

There were things I liked very much about the Cypher System. I liked the focus on exploration and narrative. I liked the speed of combat and the lack of book-keeping. I liked character creation. After playing the Cypher System, I now want to go away and tinker with D&D a bit. I would be interested to handwave equipment, for example, and introduce more degrees of success for d20 rolls. I even wonder whether the game would suffer much from using average damage rolls.

However: D&D is RPG comfort food. It can be weird sometimes, and frustrating, and it bears the baggage of nearly half a century of tinkering and revision. But for all that, it’s reassuringly familiar. D&D suffers sometimes from trying to be all things to all people: it lists exploration and social interaction as two of its ‘three pillars’, for example, but, rules as written, it seems to reward little except combat. The Cypher System is certainly better in this regard. For a game of high fantasy dungeon-crawling, you might miss the crunch and precision of D&D. But if you have a group that wants to do more than bash, bash, loot, then definitely give the Cypher System a try.

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New Year, New Game: the Cypher System

Monte Cook Games

D&D 5th edition is a great game. It’s not perfect, and there are definitely problems with its mechanics that need fixing, but, for now, it’s my go-to RPG. If nothing else, it is comfortingly familiar, and the game your friends are most likely to know already.

Over the next few weeks, though, I’m hoping to take advantage of my time off work and get some one-shots together with my friends from home. There are a number of systems I’ve been wanting to look at closely for a while, and this week we’re going to be trying out the Cypher System from Monte Cook games.

The Cypher System evolved from Numenera, a science-fantasy RPG launched on Kickstarter in 2013. It won Product of the Year at the ENnies and Best New Roleplaying Game at Origins. If you’ve been following RPGs for a while, you might recognize the creative team behind the system: Monte Cook, Bruce R Cordell, and Sean K Reynolds. Cook was one of the three lead designers in D&D 3rd edition (he worked primarily on the Dungeon Master’s Guide), and Cordell and Reynolds have both worked on numerous products for Wizards of the Coast.

RPG Review: Numenera - Shut Up & Sit Down

Numenera

Unlike Numenera, which is set a billion years in the future, the Cypher System is both setting- and genre-neutral, much like Fate Core or GURPS. In many ways, it is more ‘rules light’ than D&D: there are just three stats, Might, Speed, and Intellect, and only four character types, . There is also much more of a focus on narrative: as the introduction states, ‘story is king’. However, the crunch is still there, and, if anything, the simplicity of the rules can be liberating when creating new characters.

This week, we’re probably just going to get together to make characters and agree a setting, so I’ll hold back from commenting on the gameplay until we’ve had a chance to run a session together. To get a sense for how the game works, though, I thought I might walk through the character creation process to see how the game is different yet familiar for long-time D&D players.

My first ever D&D character was a dwarven cleric called Belise Samilkin. He was in many ways a stereotypical fantasy dwarf: he would run into melee combat as fast as his little legs would carry him, swinging a huge hammer and casting spells of protection and healing. So: how would Belise look in the Cypher System?

Dwarf Paladin, Dnd Dwarf, Dnd Characters, Fantasy Characters, - D&d Rpg -  Cleric Spellbook Cards PNG Image | Transparent PNG Free Download on SeekPNG

Wizards of the Coast

Stats

Each character has three defining stats: Might, Speed, and Intellect. Might is an amalgamation of Strength and Constituion, Speed is roughly akin to Dexterity, and Intellect covers Wisdom and Charisma as well as Intelligence.

Each stat also has three components: your Pool, your Edge, and your Effort.

Your Pool is the basic measure of your stat, just like your ability score is in D&D, but it is also rather like your stat’s ‘hit points’: physical damage from a sword will reduce your Might Pool, for example, while a psionic blast might reduce your Intellect Pool.

You also have an Effort score (but not for each stat). In the Cypher System, you can spend points from your stat Pool to make a task easier, and your Effort score indicates how many steps you can reduce the difficulty by. By default, your Effort score is 1, but, as characters gain experience, they can increase their Effort scores and attempt increasingly more challenging feats.

So what’s Edge? It’s kind of like a cushion for your Pool and your Effort. When something requires you to spend points from a stat Pool, your Edge for that stat reduces the cost. For example, if it normally costs you a 1 point from your Intellect Pool to activate your mental blast ability, then a character with Intellect Edge 1 instead uses the ability for free. Your Edge also reduces the cost of applying Effort to a roll. If you had a Speed Edge of 2, for example, and you were applying Effort on a Speed roll – something that would normally cost 3 points from your Speed Pool – you would instead only spend 1 point from your Speed Pool.

So, what are Belise’s stat pools? That depends on what type of character he is. In the Cypher System, you describe your character as ‘an adjective noun who verbs’, and the noun is your character type.

Monte Cook Games

‘I am an adjective noun who verbs

At first, I thought Belise was not really a warrior, an explorer, or a speaker. He’s an adept, surely. However, that’s not a perfect fit. Belise might be a spellcaster, but he’s good at fighting, too! The Cypher System lets you do this with flavours. Perhaps you are a speaker who knows a little about magic, or a warrior with ‘skills and knowledge’ (eg, a military engineer). Belise is going to be a warrior with magic abilities, which means I can trade a few of my warrior abilities for some more cleric-like options.

As a first-tier warrior, Belise starts with Pool values of 10, 10, and 8 in Might, Speed, and Intellect, with 6 additional points to divide among my stat pools as I see fit. (‘First tier’? The Cypher System doesn’t have 20 character levels: it has six tiers instead, and first-tier characters are already pretty competent.) Speed is not that important to me, so I split the six points between Might and Intellect. I’ll put the remaining 3 points on Intellect, so my final stat Pools are 13 for Might, 8 for Speed, and 11 for Intellect. My Might Edge is 1, and my Edge for Speed and Intellect is 0.

My character type also determines my starting equipment and my special abilities. I’ll leave equipment for now and focus on my special abilities.

Monte Cook Games

I can choose four special abilities from the warrior list, and I can also ‘sacrifice’ any of the warrior options for a magic option (meaning I can never choose that warrior option in the future). I definitely want ‘Magic Training’ from the magic abilities, and I’m happy to sacrifice ‘Pierce’ for it. I also like the ‘Premonition’ ability, for which I will sacrifice ‘Trained Without Armour’. For my other two special abilities, I will take ‘Practised in Armour’ and ‘Bash’ from the warrior list.

Character creation doesn’t stop there, though! Belise is not just ‘an adept with combat flavour’: he is an adjective adept who verbs. In the Cypher System, this adjective is called your character descriptor and the verb is called your focus.

For my descriptor, I considered a number of options: Brash, Clumsy, Hardy, Honourable, Jovial, Kind, Strong, Strong-Willed, Tough, and Virtuous. I ended up going with Clumsy, which, among other things, boosts my Might Pool (‘Thick-Muscled’) and lowers my Speed Pool (‘Butterfingers’: yep, that’s Belise). For my focus, I went with ‘Channels Divine Blessings’. This focus gave me the option to choose two abilities from the ‘Blessings of the Gods’ list, and I went with ‘Health’ (a healing ability) and ‘Benevolence’ (which lets me banish demons and spirits).

So that’s that! I am a clumsy warrior who channels divine blessings. I have a Might Pool of 15, a Speed Pool of 6, and an Intellect Pool of 11. I am practised in armour and trained in magic. I can channel divine blessings to heal my friends or banish the undead. I can pummel enemies to leave them dazed and I can use my Intellect to learn random facts about creatures and locations. Other than equipment, my character is complete. Time to head for that tavern and find an adventuring party!

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Die, Bard: A D&D Christmas Adventure Seed

A setting-neutral holiday one-shot for four 4th-level characters. Yippee-ki-yay, motherflumphers.

It is the night of the midwinter feast, and the party has been invited to the tower of archwizard Takagi for his annual celebrations.

At dusk, a long, black stagecoach pulls up outside, drawn by four black horses. A stout halfling with dark, curly hair is sitting in the driving box at the front. ‘Argyle,’ he says, introducing himself. ‘I’m your coachman. You’re gonna have to help me. This is my first time driving a coach . . .’ He seems to have forgotten that he is meant to open the door for them.

Argyle is a little nervous: it is indeed his first day driving a coach, not that he’s bad at it. He is also chatty (bordering on nosey) and asks lots of questions about the adventurers and the party that they are going to. He knows lots of songs and poems for the midwinter festival, and he enjoys singing loudly while he’s driving the stagecoach. Beyond that, he wants the adventurers to sit back and relax. Encounter idea: seven gremlins (use goblin stats) and one king gremlin (goblin boss) try to stop the coach.

The archwizard’s tower comes into view in the dying light: an impressive structure of salmon-pink stone and gleaming grey crystal, nearly 500 feet tall. Night has fallen by the time Argyle has drawn up the coach. ‘You go upstairs to the party,’ he says. ‘I’ll wait in the coach house till the end of the evening.’ He forgets, again, that he’s meant to open the door for them.

The archwizard’s tower

Cubicle 7

The entrance hall is beautiful yet sterile. It is also deserted, except for a guard sitting behind a massive front desk. A large teddy bear sits on the chair next to him. The guard checks the characters’ tickets and looks up their names in a guest list. If asked about the teddy bear, he jokes that it didn’t have a guest ticket. (The bear is actually a gift for his girlfriend.) 

Weapons are not allowed in the tower. Characters who wish to conceal a weapon with the ‘light’ property can attempt to do so with a DC 15 Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check. The DC for any other weapon is at least 30. Armour (with the exception of padded armour) is also not allowed, and neither are shields.

When the party is ready, the guard will lead them to a magical platform that acts as an extremely fast elevator. The celebrations are being held on the 30th floor.

The Midwinter Feast

Wizards of the Coast

The 30th floor is dense with people. Waiters carry trays of wine and fruit punch from guest to guest. A tall fir tree stands at the centre of the room, decorated with ribbons, silver tinsel, candy d20s, and magic lights. Some of the guests throw streamers over the characters. Some of the guests dance. Others try to kiss the adventurers. Through the crystal panes of the tower walls, the party can see the lamplit city far beneath them.

Here’s an opportunity for the players to roleplay some social encounters:

  • Holly (half-elf noble) is a successful ex-adventurer and mother of two.
  • Ellis (dwarf noble) a stylish, successful, and rather sleazy merchant who can’t stop sniffing for some reason.
  • Takagi, a kind-hearted, well educated mage and the host for the evening.
  • Bruce (human veteran), a tough off-duty watchman annd Holly’s ex-husband.

At some point, one of Takagi’s servants comes to find the adventurers. Argyle is trying to call them on one of Takagi’s sending stones upstairs, but when the party get there, Argyle is singing to himself again and doesn’t pick up.

Party’s over

Wizards of the Coast

At this point, the tower is seized by Gruber the Bard and his gang of heavily armed mercenaries! The adventurers can hear the sound of lightning bolts and melee combat from downstairs. The party guests are herded in the centre of the chamber and the tables are pulled back. Many people are whimpering.

The leader of the mercenaries is a tiefling dressed in a colourful entertainer’s outfit. He is impeccably dressed, lean and handsome, and walks to the front of the crowd like he owns the place. He puts away his wand of lightning bolt and unfurls a vellum scroll.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he begins, soothingly, ‘due to this kingdom’s legacy of greed, it is about to be taught a lesson in real power. You . . . will be witnesses. If our demands are not met, however, you may become participants instead.’ He gives a sad smile and checks his notes. ‘Now, where is . . . “Takagi”?  Where is the archwizard who . . . used to be in charge here?’

The archwizard is shoved forward. He is worried, but far from cowed. Gruber steps towards him and extends a hand. ‘Archwizard Takagi,’ he says. ‘How do you do? I am Gruber the Bard. Nice robes, by the way. I have some like that myself.’

Takagi turns to the crowd and seeks out the adventurers. ‘Get to safety,’ he cries, ‘and seek help!’ With that, he casts teleport from a scroll, and the adventuring party disappears . . .

To be continued!

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