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 has place in the story.

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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Epic D&D Christmas Gift Guide

Wizards of the Coast

Now that it’s December, it’s time to start thinking about the Midwinter Feast! This post is a list of present ideas for all the D&D players in our lives. Enjoy.

Before we start, though, a disclaimer: there are no affiliate links here, nor am I being paid in any way to endorse these products. Also, where possible, please support your Friendly Local Game Store. 2020 has been a horrendous year for the high street, and we don’t need to add any more gold pieces to the hoard of Archduke Beeelzebezos. If you’re in the UK, may I put in a good word for the wonderful Thirsty Meeples? They are brilliant people, and when I lived in Oxford I went to their board game café as often as I could. Now is the time to support folks like them.

I considered sorting this list into price categories but couldn’t decide on dollars or pounds. As such, the gifts generally get more expensive as you go down the list, but there may be exceptions!

Dice and related accessories

Top of the list! Everyone loves dice. Even if you’re playing online due to the pandemic, it’s nice to have something to interact with which isn’t on a screen. There’s a huge range of colours and materials available, so you should be able to get something a bit special without breaking the bank. Etsy is a great place to go.

For those who have stumbled upon this blog and don’t know what they’re looking for, the classic dice set consists of seven dice: a d20, a d12, two d10s (one with 10, 20, 30, etc, for percentages), a d8, a d6, and a d4. I’m increasingly seeing sets with two d20s, as 5th edition often asks players to roll two at the same time, and some streamers might want to have an oversized d20 that can be seen better on camera. Other players might want to have a bunch of extra d6s – for sneak attacks, fireballs, or rolling ability scores – or a few extra d8s (for divine smite). There are even some cute little ‘healing potion’ kits that come with all the d4s you need to treat your wounds! (Just don’t step on them: d4s hurt.)

As well as the dice themselves, consider dice trays and towers (for rolling dice) and dice pouches or boxes (for storing them). There are some fun options here like dice pouches shaped like mimics and owlbears, but also some seriously classy products made by companies like Wyrmwood Gaming. Shop around.

Stationery

OC][ART] I did a DM Notebook with map of Sword Coast : DnD

Reddit (@rtakehara)

Wizards of the Coast like to push The Merch™ (D&D T-shirts, D&D hoodies, D&D socks, D&D beanies), but I personally think a lot of D&D players would get more enjoyment out of a humble notebook.

We all have our preferences. Some like hardcover, some like leather; some prefer wide lines, some prefer narrow; some want little jotters, some want big A4 pads. If you’re buying for a DM who uses their notebook for mapping, you might want to look for a notebook with squares, dots, isometric grids, or even hexes. Here, again, Etsy is a great place to shop around. I’m also a big fan of the notebooks from Leuchtturm1917 and Clairefontaine.

Then there’s other stationery! A campaign binder, a calligraphy set or a nice fountain pen, some parchment paper, bespoke character sheets, an attractive storage box . . . it might seem prosaic, but many DMs would love this stuff, especially if they are creative. For map-makers, check out Dyson’s article on the drawing of maps. A set of supermarket biros is a crap present, but a set of fineliners with nice isometric paper is thoughtful and will be appreciated.

Miniatures

For many of us, 2020 has not been a good year for in-person D&D games. Does that mean we don’t love minis any more? Er, NO!

Whether you’re looking for monsters or player characters, I highly recommend the WizKids unpainted range. They are reasonably priced, come pre-primed (a huge time-saver), and the selection on offer is impressive, as you can see here: https://wizkids.com/upm They also offer a range of pre-painted minis, but I don’t think the quality is as good for the price. Other good minis for D&D include Reaper and Gale Force Nine, but my go-to is WizKids.

Then there’s custom minis. HeroForge is unquestionably the market leader. They’re very special (and if you’re ordering outside the US, be aware that import taxes can make them a bit expensive), and the quality is outstanding. The ever growing range of options available is just amazing. They have recently launched full-colour minis (currently only on offer to Kickstarter backers), and you even have the option of downloading your models for use on Tabletop Simulator. Be prepared to spend ours tinkering with your designs. I recommend the premium plastic material.

If you’re looking to get started with mini-painting, then I recommend the following: four brushes (a large brush, a drybrush, a size-zero detail brush, and a size-two Winsor and Newton Series 7 brush for everything else), some brush cleaner and preserver, some spray-on primer (if your minis aren’t pre-primed), and a selection of Vallejo game colour paints. I am a huge fan of RealmSmith’s mini-painting tutorials, and his white dragon one is an excellent place to start. Everything else is either cheap or you have it already: a good lamp, an old mug for water, some paper towels, and an old T-shirt to protect your desk. Larger minis like dragons might seem intimidating, but I personally find them much more fun to paint.

Game aids

Now we start getting into some of the really nerdy stuff.

It might seem a bit basic, but a dry-erase flipmat is an absolute godsend for people playing at the table. (Seriously, Sly Flourish has a whole article on this.) There are various options available, but try to make sure it’s something that lies flat. Bonus points if you get something with a hex-grid on the reverse. If youre in the UK, Blackwell’s is currently selling the Pathfinder flipmat for £6.62 with free delivery.

Another very useful product is condition rings. These are plastic rings in different colours which you can throw over miniatures to show that a character is stunned, poisoned, unconscious, or what have you. Totally unnecessary, perhaps, but fun. Etsy is your best bit for these (eg, these ones pictured above).

Then there are combat risers. (Combat what now? I had been playing D&D for nearly two decades before I first encountered these online.) If you’re more into ‘theatre of the mind’ combat, you may want to give these a pass, but if you like to be quite particular about movement on a five-foot grid, and you run a lot of aerial combat, then these are for you!

Finally, if you want to splash out, you might want to look at terrain and terrain tiles. Dwarven Forge is king here, and it is beautiful stuff, but import fees can make it prohibitive if you’re in the UK. WarLock tiles are new and popular, and if you’re in the UK, you might want to check out some independent terrain-makers like DMB Games.

Introductions to D&D

OK, this list is meant to be for people who are already playing D&D, but I couldn’t put together a list of D&D gifts without the D&D Starter Set. Launched back in 2014, this box has everything you need to start playing, including dice, character sheets, a rulebook, and what is still widely regarded as one of the best official adventures in 5th edition so far: Lost Mine of Phandelver. Last year’s update, the D&D Essentials Kit, is also very good, but I have to say, the adventure (Dragon of Icespire Peak) is a little disappointing by comparison. If you can choose one or the other, go with the Starter Set.

D&D rulebooks and supplements

Buying actual books can be tricky, for two reasons. Firstly, you don’t know what books they have already. Secondly, you don’t know whether they want the book on D&D Beyond, as a physical hard copy, or on some other platform like Fantasy Grounds or Roll20.

If you are going to buy a book, my advice would be Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, Volo’s Guide to Monsters, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, or Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. These are the books that actually ‘expand the game’ in some way. Tasha’s is the newest and the one that your D&D-playing friend is least likely to own already. Many of these books have alternative covers which some players like to collect.

Then there are adventures. This is even trickier territory. For what it’s worth, my hot pick would be Tomb of Annihilation, Curse of Strahd, Ghosts of Saltmarsh, or Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. These adventures are quite different from each other, though, and they might not be every group’s cup of tea. Rime of the Frostmaiden was only released a few months ago, and I haven’t had the chance to read through or play it yet.

For really special editions, check out Beadle & Grimm’s store here.

Other RPGs

Sacrilige! Except, of course, not really. It’s well worth dipping your toe into other systems, and you may even find that you prefer them to D&D! Buying books from other systems can also be a safer bet than buying D&D adventures or supplements.

A list:

Books about roleplaying

There are also some fantastic books about roleplaying out there. I recommend Hamlet’s Hitpoints and Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering by Robin Laws, Of Dice and Men by David Ewalt, and literally anything by Keith Ammann (product links on his home page), Matt Colville, James D’Amato, or Mike Shea (Sly Flourish – again, his products are linked down the side of the home page).

Tech stuff

This is outside my realm of expertise, but for many players in 2020, playing D&D means playing online, so good-quality devices are vital. Specifically, this might mean a professional-standard microphone (Blue’s Yeti is well regarded, as is the ModMic), good headphones (start with companies like Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, and Beyerdynamic) an external webcam (eg, the Logitech Brio), and, for DMs, perhaps a tripod (eg, this one), as they may wish to point the camera at the game board to show off their minis and terrain. Full disclaimer, though: this stuff is expensive, and I am not an expert, so please research futher!

Another bit of tech to consider: a 3D printer. For people who love minis and want to make their own, this could be a generous and much appreciated gift. The Monoprice Mini v2 gets a lot of thumbs up online.

Commissions

Possibly the most unique and personalized gift of all, a commission could be a framed drawing of a character or the whole party, a specially printed map (try Etsy), or even – yes – a cake! (And no, it is not a lie).

Artists and clients is a great place to start for artwork, as are subreddits like r/artcommissions and r/hungryartists. Or, you know, if you’re Sofia Vergara, get Jeff Easley to paint your husband’s favourite D&D character. We can all dream. The cake pictured above was commissioned for me by my fiancée (#keeper) at The Cake Shop in Oxford’s wonderful Covered Market. My fiancée definitely rolled a natural 20 with that one.

Did I miss anything? Leave a suggestion in the comments!

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How to be a good D&D player

‘At the end of the day, D&D is a game,’ a friend of mine said recently, ‘and some people just play it better than others.’

I’ve been giving this some thought of late. D&D is, of course, a game. It has rules. If you’re playing with a grid and minis, it also has a ‘board’ of sorts. But it’s also (a) extremely social, and (b) a creative outlet: an artform, even. Some players come along for the power-gaming, some want to roleplay, some just want to hang out. ‘Playing the game well’, then, is perhaps more complex than it sounds.

With that in mind, I’ve broken up this article into three sections: how to make the most of the rules; how to not be a dick (for want of a better phrase – aka ‘Wheaton’s Law’); and how to be a good storyteller and roleplayer. To me, the best D&D players are a mix of all three, but, at the same time, it’s OK to not be good at all of it. Everybody brings something different to the table, and that’s not a bad thing, either.

Mastering the rules

Don’t get me wrong: mastering the rules isn’t the be-all and the end-all of being a good D&D player. But it helps.

Knowing the rules will help you enjoy the game, even if the rules are not that important to you. It will free you up to focus on what’s actually happening at the table. Knowing the rules also helps to take away some of the conflict that might arise between the players and the DM. The rules are a neutral arbiter: if you all agree to follow them, there are fewer arguments about what you can and cannot do, and in a game that fundamentally revolves around making stuff up in your imagination, that matters. D&D is also a co-op game, of course, so if you know the rules well yourself, you’re also going to help your teammates: help them survive, help them kick butt, help them progress and feel badass.

As a player, then, what are the most important rules to know?

I’m going to skip over the stuff that’s truly basic: the names of the dice, the six ability scores, advantage and disadvantage, that kind of thing. All of that is a given. What all players need to be confident in is the options they use most frequently. Core class features like a rogue’s sneak attack or a paladin’s divine smite; racial traits like lucky for halflings and relentless endurance for halflings; feats like Great Weapon Master and War Caster. If it’s an ability you can expect to use at least once a session, you should be confident with how it works.

Why? For several reasons. Stopping to look up these rules is an unnecessary interruption to the flow of the game. It’s irritating for other players and the DM. It can lead to the party wasting its resources needlessly, or even, in the worst case scenario, character death. Now, if it’s a new character for you, or you’re new to the game, this is all, of course, forgivable. But if you’ve been playing for a few sessions and you simply haven’t bothered to find out what your character can do – ‘how does flurry of blows work, guys?’ – you’re going to rub your teammates up the wrong way.

D&D - Unearthed Arcana - Monks - Bell of Lost Souls

Wizards of the Coast

What about spells? Should a spellcaster know how every spell in the game works? No, of course not. I’ve been playing D&D for nearly 20 years, and I’m still coming across spells that are new to me, particularly at higher levels. But if they’re your bread and butter, you should know how they work, and, to be honest, if you’ve chosen to prepare them, then it would be to have at least a vague sense of how they work.

If you are playing a character with a lot going on – a multiclass character, for instance, or one of the more complex core classes like a paladin or a spellcaster – then you may want to make yourself a combat cheat sheet. What’s your default action in most rounds? Are there any ‘combos’ you can do (like Great Weapon Master and Reckless Attack for barbarians). When do you pull out the big guns? And what’s your escape route?

Rules mastery is not just about playing your character effectively but building your character effectively. This is what some players refer to as ‘optimizing’ – somewhat disparagingly, perhaps, along with terms like ‘min-maxing’ and ‘munchkinnery’. Building your character to try and break the game is mean-spirited and self-defeating. Building your character to be effective and fun to play, however: that’s fine! If you’re meant to be the party sneak, for example, and you’re wearing heav armour and boosting your Strength instead of your Dex, that’s not helping anyone.

Does all of this mean that you have to do a bit of prep to be a good D&D player? Frankly: yes. Not a lot – and there are plenty of great resources out there to help you, like rpgbot.net – but a bit of forward planning will make your character easier to play, faster to play, and better to play. You will probably have more fun, and so will your teammates. As prep goes, it will be nothing compared to what your DM is doing week in, week out.

The social side (or ‘don’t be a dick’)

It always makes me laugh when I hear that Critical Role is scripted | Sage  Advice D&D

Be friends, like these guys.

There are horror stories on the Internet of truly toxic behaviour at D&D games. (Indeed, there’s an entire subreddit devoted to such things.) Fortunately, I’ve never had to deal with such people, but that’s probably because I’ve only ever played D&D with friends, not strangers.

D&D has an unwritten social contract. We’re all there to have fun: to tell stories, roll dice, make jokes, and escape the ratrace of everyday life. That’s why it’s great. But, just with any social activity, there are behaviours that are going to grate over time, and as players, it’s worth reflecting now and then whether we might be guilty of any of them ourselves.

As with rules mastery, I’m going to skip over the most basic stuff here. Racism, misogyny, rape: that stuff stinks and has no place at any table. And just to be clear: that list is only the start, and not exhaustive. (Incidentally, the latest edition of Pathfinder has a useful section called ‘the Pathfinder Baseline’ which is worth reading in its entirety. It is transferrable to any tabletop roleplaying game, not just D&D.)

You Can Be The Best D&D Player Ever. Here's How. | Geek and Sundry

Wizards of the Coast

Putting aside rules mastery and creative input, then, here are a few suggestions for being a good player:

  • Thank your DM. I put this top of the list for a reason. Most DMs work far harder than the players do in order to make the game enjoyable. Appreciate them! With Christmas coming up, maybe buy them something as a token of your gratitude.
  • Be on time. A simple thing, but, y’know, it matters. If you know you’re not going to make a session, or you’re going to be late, try to give the group as much warning as possible. ‘Life stuff’ happens, but where possible, be courteous.
  • Listen. We all zone out from time to time, but try to follow what’s going on, especially when the DM is describing something important. This can be especially difficult with online games, so close those tabs and put your webcam on to keep yourself engaged.
  • Include others. When I think about the best players I have played with, this is one of the things that keeps coming up. Ask what other characters are doing; engage in dialogue; interract with something the DM has described. It’s a cooperative game: it’s not all about you.
  • Be ready on your turn. D&D is a complex game, and it’s not always possible to know how your character is going to act, but it’s good to try and plan your move before your turn comes round in the initiative order. (This is partially linked to rules mastery, above.)
  • Respect the DM’s decisions. Again, D&D is a complex game, and DMs don’t always get it right, especially if they’re inexperienced. But arguing with the DM in front of the group is a dick move. Save it for after the session. (For more on this, see my post here.)
  • Welcome new players. Note that this verb is active: being welcoming is more than just an absence of hostility. Smile. Ask them how they are. Make them feel included. Joining a new group is daunting: don’t make it harder than it already is.

I’ve probably missed something here. If in doubt, though, just don’t be a dick.

Storytelling and roleplaying

So far, I’ve focused on the mechanics (rules mastery) and the social side of how to be a better player. There’s one more category: how to contribute a fantastic D&D story.

Dungeons and Dragons movie release date, cast and plot

Wizards of the Coast

This post is already getting a little long, though, so I will revert to bullet points again here.

  • Invest in your character. Yes, they might die, but even so, develop your character and think about what makes them tick. How are they different from other characters you’ve made? What are their long-term hopes and dreams? What is their internal conflict? Do they have a backstory? As a DM, I take a leaf out of Mike Shea’s book and write down ten secrets and clues before every session. What would your character’s ten secrets be?
  • Collaborate. This one word covers a multitude of different things. Build a character that fits the party theme. Ask questions to ‘bring in’ other roleplayers, especially if they’re shy. Read the room: if the group is taking something seriously, hold off on the cheesy puns. Know when to redirect the spotlight, not hog it.
  • Get the voice right. This is a big one for me. Unlike actors and animators, most players don’t get to portray a character visually or physically: all they have is description and a voice. What is your character’s voice like? Alec Guinness once said that he never ‘got’ a character unless he had mastered exactly how they walked. For us D&D players, your voice is your most powerful roleplaying tool. Try to stay in character if you can: roleplaying in the first person is so much more evocative and memorable than third-person description.
  • Take notes. No one’s asking you to write a publishable diary here, but jot a few things down during the session. It’s not just the DM’s job!
  • Try your hand at DMing. I firmly believe that DMing makes you a better player, just as being a player makes you a better DM.
  • Be proactive and reactive. Paradoxical, perhaps, but not contradictory. Make things happen! Contribute! Do the thing! But at the same time: when unexpected stuff happens, roll with it. One of the most sacred principles of good improv is ‘yes, and’. In a game that revolves around random dice rolls and constant collaboration, being reactive is not just preferable: it’s essential. Embrace the weirdness and have fun.

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Death in D&D

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Dying in D&D is momentous. A big part of what makes the game fun is creating a character, investing in them, breathing life into them, and watching them grow from session to session. You don’t ‘win’ D&D by killing things and gaining XP: you win when you have stories to reminisce over with your friends. So when you watch a character die before their time – when you realize that you are never going to play them again – that can be a surprisingly moving moment. And it’s important, therefore, that it’s handled properly.

Talk it through

Character death can be unpredictable. It can be caused by a nasty trap, a stupid decision, a dragon’s fiery breath, or insurmountable odds. But it can also be truly random. I’ve seen low-level characters get killed by an animated broom.

If you’re running a session zero (and you should), have a conversation about character death. How do characters feel about it? Is it off the table? Is it part and parcel of adventuring life? Does it make for a good story? Are there means of bringing characters back to life? If so, how easy are they to come by? Perhaps the characters simply ‘respawn’ like they might in a video game; perhaps they need the aid of rare and powerful magic or divine intervention. Plenty of great characters in fiction have come back from the dead – Gandalf, Harry Potter, Jon Snow, Sherlock Holmes, Kenny McCormick – but it’s usually an important and memorable moment, so savour it. Consider whether the character comes back changed somehow, either spiritually or physically.

It’s important to have this conversation early as 1st level as the deadliest in the game. A single crit from a half-decent enemy can knock a character unconscious, and crits happen five percent of the time. It can also be an important conversation to have if you’re running some of the deadlier campaign adventures. Rime of the Frostmaiden and Lost Mine of Phandelver both have some very deadly encounters at low levels, and Tomb of Annhilation even recommennds a ‘meat grinder mode’.

Tomb of Annihilation | Dungeons & Dragons

Wizards of the Coast

Perhaps your players are divided: some want embrace the risk, while others seek the assurance of playing the same character session after session, even if they make a really bad mistake. D&D is meant to be fun, so don’t force something on the group if they’re not happy with it. Perhaps you can agree on some alternatives to dying (see my ideas below). Perhaps you decide that, in some situations, it’s OK for the DM to make a judgement call: if the death is heroic, fitting, memorable, or just, then the character dies permanently, but if it’s anticlimactic, ridiculous, inconvenient, or unfair somehow, then perhaps the DM comes up with an alternative.

What might those alternatives look like?

Cheating death

Sometimes death isn’t the right option. Below are some variants you might want to use.

  • Casual difficulty. Instead of dying, a character gains a level of exhaustion. (What happens if they reach six levels of exhaustion, though? Something to consider.)
  • War wounds. Instead of dying, a character gains a random lingering injury from the table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
  • Revenant. The character is spared from death but returns to earth on borrowed time. The ‘Hollow One’ rules in Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount work well here.
  • Taken out. This is adapted an idea from Fate. Essentially, it’s a way of recasting what ‘death’ means. Instead of ‘dying’ , you are ‘taken out’ and the DM gets to decide what happens next to your character. Torture? Imprisonment? Transformation?
  • Nine lives. Roll 1d8 when a character dies to see how many lives they have left. (I borrowed this idea from Gnome Stew.)
  • New-U station. Perhaps it is possible to respawn but it costs a percentage of gold and/or XP.
  • Marked to die. For some reason, you don’t die – this time. But death is coming. At some point in the future (perhaps when the player rolls a 1 on their Initiative score), the character’s nemesis appears as if summoned, and they will die permanently if the monster cannot be defeated. A fiend, celestial, grim reaper, yeth hound: something wants them dead and they can’t escape.
  • Doppelganger. That’s right: the character wasn’t really who you thought they were! Perhaps they were a clone, an imposter, a psionic projection, or something else. Be careful not to overuse this one.
  • Came back wrong. The character returns to life, but they’re not . . . right, somehow. Perhaps they now register as undead to spells and spell-like abilities, and cats hiss at them in the street.
  • Harrowed. A brush with death is traumatic. The character returns to life, but roll on the long-term madness table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
  • Soul transfer. Perhaps the soul survives but finds a new body. Something on their character sheet changes (race, class, gender, age) but everything else stays the same.
  • Unexplained revival. The character doesn’t die – and no one knows why. Their return from the brink becomes a story in itself. Is it a prophecy? A twist in the fabric of time? The interference of the Raven Queen? Tell a story from it.
Shadowfell | Artio Wiki | Fandom

Wizards of the Coast

The undiscovered country

Some DMs take a very adversarial, old-school approach with their players, and character death is common. Others try to make sure that the same characters are there from one session to the next, and see character death as a terrible mistake. For me, character death is an opportunity for fantastic storytelling, but it needs to be given the attention it deserves. If the death doesn’t feel ‘right’, then think carefully about whether it’s something you want to go through with.

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Player Surveys: Talking to the Team

Wizards of the Coast

In this post, I am going to look at feedback surveys as a way of hearing from your players. They don’t need to be done frequently to provide a useful insight into how the game is going.

D&D rests upon good relationships. People put a lot of themselves into this hobby: not just time, money, and energy, but potentially an element of personal vulnerability, too. If you’re giving up three or four hours a week to sit at a table with your friends, building stories together, you want to have fun while you’re doing it.

The problem is, different players enjoy different things, and in a game that rests on personal relationships, it’s not always easy to bring this up. What if you want a game like Critical Role – immersion heavy with lots of roleplaying and storytelling – but your DM is more interested in wargaming over five-inch battle grids? What if you want something light-hearted and humorous, but everyone else wants to take the game a bit more seriously?

Emotional intelligence and the ability to read the room are key qualities in a good DM, but even the most perceptive DM is going to misread the players sometimes, especially if you’re playing online. It’s very easy for DMs to get caught up in their own personal experience and forget that the players might be looking for something different.

This is where a feedback survey can be, literally, a gamechanger. If it’s done online, it can be anonymous, unfiltered, and personalized: a chance to speak openly about how things are going. That does mean, of course, that you might get feedback you’re not expecting. But that’s kind of the point.

Breaking down the feedback survey

Tomb of Annihilation: Hex crawl procedure – Technoskald's Forge

Wizards of the Coast

So, how often should you ask your players for feedback, and what sorts of questions should you ask?

Some DMs do a quick survey after every session. Personally, that seems a bit overkill to me. You might end up with more data, but it’s not going to be as rich, potentially. You might be able to track whether players enjoyed a particular session, for example, but will the survey tell you why they enjoyed it? For most groups, a survey two or three times a year is probably about right.

I try to avoid textboxes as it helps keep the answers anonymous (and makes it quicker to complete). I tend to start with a couple of more ‘administrative’ questions (eg, session length, session frequency, preferred online platform, etc) before moving on to questions about playstyle. Here are some of the questions I would usually ask:

  • Do you prefer gridded combat, theatre of the mind, or a mix between the two?
  • Do you think the ‘three pillars of adventure’ (combat, exploration, and social interaction) have been balanced?
  • As a player, which activities do you enjoy most and least? (I use the activities on page 6 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.)
  • Is combat too easy, too difficult, or about right?
  • Do the players want to use any variant rules?
  • Are you happy with your character?

This year, I’ve included a couple of questions about DM issues and player issues. The players can rate each issue based on how much it has been a problem: ‘never’, ‘seldom’, ‘some of the time’, or ‘most of the time’. If you’re using something like SurveyMonkey, you can score each answer based on player responses: ‘never’ would be +0, ‘seldom’ would be +1, and so on, up to +3. It helps you see what the group consensus is, and whether it changes over time.

Here is my list of DM issues (adapted from a similar list by Sly Flourish):

  • Forcing the story
  • Taking away player agency
  • Being too adversarial
  • Ignoring the desires of the players
  • Inflexibility
  • Lack of creativity
  • Unfairness
  • Impatience
  • Not listening
  • Rules knowledge
  • Humourlessness
  • Lack of preparation
  • Poor description

And here’s my list of player issues:

  • Being uncooperative
  • Spotlight hogging
  • Not paying attention
  • Metagaming
  • Rules lawyering
  • Cheating
  • Not taking the game seriously
  • Whining
  • Impatience
  • Taking the game too seriously
  • Not preparing enough
  • Lateness

Your own list might be a bit different. Keeping your questions the same, though, gives you the chance to track over time whether there has been any kind of change or improvement. Earlier in the year, for instance, my biggest issues as a DM were ‘inflexibility’, ‘impatience’, ‘rules knowledge’, and ‘poor description’. When I ran the same survey last week, my scores had gone down from two ‘seldoms’ to one, and only one issue, ‘lack of preparation’, had got worse.

I like end with the simplest but most important question: Overall, how much do you enjoy playing the campaign? Again, I give options like ‘always’, ‘most of the time’, ‘sometimes’, ‘never’, but you could use other ratings.

Responding to feedback

D&D's Statement Regarding Zak Smith | Dungeons & Dragons

Wizards of the Coast

If you’re happy with the feedback: great! It might be that there are no great surprises: that you know your players well and can read the room. It’s still good to check.

On the other hand, there might be some unexpected negativity. If so, try not to take it personally. DMing is hard, and people get better at it over time. In fact, it’s very difficult to get better at anything without constructive feedback. Perhaps go back to your group and ask for more detail. You could talk to them separately or do another survey with the option to include fuller answers. See if there are one or two things you can focus on, like speeding up combat or prepping more efficiently. Alternatively, perhaps take a break from DMing for a while and come back to it when you’re feeling more positive.

Other surveys

What's in the Bag? | Dungeons & Dragons

Wizards of the Coast

Finally, it can also be good to do a questionnaire at the end of a campaign or before starting a new one. These will be quite different, potentially. Before a campaign, you might want to find out what sort of campaign people are looking for. Do they want a short campaign or a long one? Which campaign setting do they want to use? Do they want to use a different system?

At the end of a campaign, you might want to combine the feedback part of your survey with a jokey ‘awards’ ceremony. At the end of our Tomb of Annihilation campaign, for example, we gave out awards like the Sean Bean Award for Best Character Death and the Matt Mercer Award for Best Roleplaying. D&D might not be a game about ‘winning’, but when you replay these moments with your friends, you come pretty close.

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