Death in D&D

Wizards of the Coast

Dying in D&D is momentous. A big part 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 obtain? 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 they come 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 send 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

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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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Is D&D art?

A few months ago, following an interesting discussion on Reddit provoked by my post on creating awesome characters, I put the following question to Twitter: are roleplaying games an art form?

In hindsight, it might have been better to ask, ‘can roleplaying games be an art form’. Perhaps the wording would have made a difference. For what it’s worth, 17 out of 20 respondents agreed that yes, roleplaying games are an art form. Of course, a sample size of 20 is clearly not representative of much, but, nonetheless, it is interesting that the response was not unanimous. If the question had been ‘can photography be an art form’ ­– or ‘cinema’, or ‘the novel’ – would 15 percent of respondents have said ‘no’?   

It is a question that interests me. As a player, as a DM, and as an English teacher, I lean towards the storytelling aspects of the game, and I think storytelling is one of the key distinguishers between roleplaying games and other kinds of tabletop board games. And if other kinds of storytelling are considered art, why not roleplaying games? Does it even matter? I would argue that yes, it does.

I believe not only that roleplaying games can be considered as a form of art, but also, in many ways, that they should be.   

Defining ‘art’

Shakespeare's Globe: 'Without emergency funding from government, we will  not be able to survive this crisis' | WhatsOnStage

Shakespeare’s Globe

There is, of course, no universal consensus on what constitutes art. However, looking up definitions of ‘art’ in a dictionary or an encyclopedia, there are, at least, some recurring ideas:

  • Creativity
  • Expression
  • Imagination
  • Concepts
  • Emotional power
  • Technical skill

I would argue that a roleplaying game can possess all these qualities, and I don’t think it is particularly controversial to say so. The first three bullets, especially, are clearly fundamental to roleplaying games as a form. By their very nature, roleplaying games are creative, expressive, and imaginative. But what about the next three?

Roleplaying games are certainly capable of exploring big concepts, just as all stories are. A D&D campaign could choose to focus on a the horror of war, for example, or the lure of power, or even some of the most profound and universal questions in world literature like mortality and morality: what it means to be human and what it means to be evil. And with these questions comes emotional power. Just watch Matt Colville’s passion here as he discusses the climax of Critical Role’s first season (spoilers):

From a rules perspective, this moment was about burning a 9th-level spell slot to cast counterspell. But fans of the series will appreciate that there was far more to it than this, and Sam Riegel’s tears are a powerful testament to the impact the decision had on him. (Incidentally, Matt Colville explicitly refers to Critical Role as a work of art here.)       

What about technical skill? After all, the greatest revolution in 20th-century art was the creation of conceptual art, and with it the recognition that an artwork can be judged on something other than the artist’s technical skill. Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) is widely recognized as the formative example of this. So, of the six bullet points, technical skill is arguably the least essential. Regardless, even if that is one of our criteria, it is clear to anyone who has DMed a game of D&D that roleplaying games require skill, especially if you then go on to watch master like Matt Mercer or Chris Perkins do it. If DMing isn’t a skill, then neither is acting or writing. To some extent, it is a combination of both, yet something else entirely at the same time.

If, then, to be considered art, something needs to be creative, expressive, and imaginative, to have emotional power and the potential to explore big concepts, and if it should in some way showcase technical skill: well, roleplaying games tick all the boxes. But perhaps there is a definition of ‘art’ which somehow excludes roleplaying games like D&D.

Why roleplaying games are not art

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Casper David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818). Kunsthalle Hamburg.

In my very first post for this blog, I reflected that roleplaying games are special because they are collaborative, immersive, improvised, and unpredictable. Do any of these things preclude RPGs from being ‘art’?

We like to think of artists as geniuses: individuals of exceptional ability and skill. We build statues to them, hang their portraits in galleries. And certainly, there have been some truly extraordinary people throughout history who have created truly extraordinary art. But it is a mistake to think that art cannot be collaborative. Shakespeare, for example, was known to work with other writers of his day and stole liberally from them, to the extent that Robert Greene famously called Shakespeare an ‘upstart crow’ (Shakespeare having reworked Greene’s Pandosto into The Winter’s Tale). And can a playwright’s vision truly be accomplished without a performance by actors? Likewise, many of the great masters were known to paint only the hands and faces of their larger pieces, and would leave the rest of the composition for the artists in their studios to complete.

Art can be immersive, too. Immersion is essential in cinema, for example, and is arguably part of what the Romantics referred to as the sublime, masterfully captured in Casper David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (pictured above). But what about improvisation and unpredictability? There are, of course, improvisational theatre companies, but even beyond the theatre world, there are many artists would argue that there is an improvisational quality to their work: an unconscious birst of creativity or moment of inspiration where the artist is not completely in control. It is perhaps most vividly demonstrated in the work of Jackson Pollock (eg, below). In D&D, that randomness is provided by dice rolls. Does that devalue it as a form of art?

Jackson Pollock | Biography & Facts | Britannica

Jackson Pollock, Number 1A (1948). Museum of Modern Art, New York.

I do not think these distinctive qualities – collaboration, immersion, improvisation, and unpredictability – should be seen as a sign that RPGs should be excluded from being ‘art’. Rather, I believe they are exciting and unique innovations. Cinema is not theatre, and roleplaying games not literature, but all have the potential to be art.

It is perhaps worth mentioning here that virtually every new art form was controversial when it first emerged. Prose (‘novel’ literally means new, of course) had a lower status than poetry. So did drama. Until the late Middle ages, English – the vernacular – had a lower status than French and Latin. Incredibly, the University of Oxford did not consider English Literature to be a subject worthy of academic study until well into the 19th century. And even today, there are still art critics who believe that cinema and photography are not true artforms.

It’s often unsaid, but there is also a certain snobbery in the art world around art that is made to be popular and enjoyable. Comedy often has lower status, for example, and popular, modern creators like Banksy, Stormzy, and J K Rowling are given less status than older, more establised ‘greats’. D&D is, of course, a game, and Rule Zero is, essentially, to have fun. Perhaps this seems antithetical to the purpose of art.

However: once again, this is a misconception. There is a rich history of art that is both popular and critically admired. Shakespeare was enormously successful in the London theatre scene. Dickens was the most popular novelist of his time. There are more surviving copies of The Canterbury Tales than just about any other literary text in English from the period. It was the medieval equivalent of a ‘bestseller’. So, yes, D&D is designed first and foremost to be a fun game. But why on earth should that mean that it can’t also be art?

Why does this matter?

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If D&D a game, and primarily intended to be fun, why does it matter if it is considered an art form or not?

It’s a fair question, and perhaps to some readers, it doesn’t matter. For many people, though, deciding whether or not to classify something as ‘art’ is also a value judgement. ‘Art’ is superior: for better or worse, if something is seen as ‘art’ then its cultural status is raised. It transcends normal entertainment. It becomes part of our broader conversation about what it means to be human. It is recognized and respected.

For me, then, this debate isn’t about pretension: it’s about validation. It’s about recognizing the emotional, creative, intellectual power that RPGs have and pushing the boundaries of what RPGs can do as a form still further. Shows like Critical Role have been trailblazers here. But the debate about whether RPGs are art is also about aspiration: about acknowledging that the golden age of RPGs that we are living in is the start of something, and that artist will be doing even more exciting things with RPGs in the years to come.

Consider the novel, which first emerged as a form in the early 1700s. The golden age of novel-writing – and this is of course extremely subjective, but also not particularly controversial – began around a century later, culminating in works like Middlemarch (1871–72), Anna Karenina (1877), Madame Bovary (1856), and Ulysses (1922). Similarly, the first talkies appeared in the late 1920s, but the Golden Age of Hollywood – and again, this is subjective, but also backed by critical consensus – was the late 30s into the 40s, 50s, and 60s. D&D was the first commerical roleplaying game in 1974: now, in 2020, thanks largely to streaming and the popularity of the 5th edition ruleset, it’s the closest it’s been to mainstream that it has been at any point in my lifetime. Long may it continue.

In closing, though, I do want to be clear that this is not about ‘gatekeeping’ what D&D is, or what roleplaying games are in general. I don’t get to define what D&D is: it means different things to different people. For some, it’s a tactical wargame. For others, it’s improvisational theatre. For many, it’s an ingenious mix of the two. And for hundreds of people, it’s just a lot of fun. This article is about the potential for roleplaying games to be considered art, and it is my belief that, for too long, they have been left out of our cultural conversations, and undervalued. By recognizing RPGs for the potential they have, this can, I hope, be finally reversed.

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In Praise of Adventures in Middle-Earth

I was very sad to learn (belatedly) that Cubicle 7 would no longer be publishing new material for their excellent Adventures in Middle-Earth roleplaying game, created by Dominic McDowall and Jon Hodgson. 2019 was Cubicle 7’s most successful year to date, and Adventures in Middle-Earth won the 2017 Origins Award for Best Role-Playing Game, but the Irish company, which also publishes the fourth edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, has chosen to end its agreement with the licence-holder over contractual differences.

Adventures in Middle-Earth (AiME henceforth) is based on 5th edition D&D but makes a number of tweaks to the system to better incorporate the themes of Tolkien’s storytelling. This article will highlight some of the most innovative changes and consider how they might work well in other D&D games.

New classes

Cubicle 7

I have long been a fan of low-magic fantasy. Don’t get me wrong, conventional D&D is a lot of fun, too! But for me, the less overt fantasy there is in the setting, the more wonderful and fantastical it becomes. Thanks to the addition of bonded accuracy, 5th edition feels like a better fit for a low-magic setting than earlier versions of D&D might.

However, in 5th edition, most classes are spellcasters or have the option to be. Spellcasters have much more freedom over the spells they can cast: cantrips can be used at will, and Vancian magic has largely been replaced with spontaneous spellcasting. To all intents and purposes, magic is now routine. It might make spellcasters easier to play, or more fun, but it’s a stumbling block for those looking to create a world where magic is subtle or hidden.

There is little in the way of ‘blatant’ or ‘showy’ magic in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, and, to recreate this atmosphere, AiME uses six new character classes. One, the scholar, is a loremaster and rudimentary healer (more on healing later). The other five, to a greater or lesser degree, are modelled on existing D&D classes, with a Middle-Earth twist: slayer, treasure hunter, wanderer, warden, and warrior, modelled on the 5e barbarian, rogue, ranger, bard, and fighter, respectively. (On a side-note, I do wish they hadn’t chosen three classes beginning with ‘w’.)

An experienced D&D player might look at these classes and think they are ‘weak’ or ‘broken’, and yes, if you were to drop them into a regular D&D game, they might feel under-powered, the scholar especially. However, this is because these classes are not designed for conventional D&D. Journeys and exploration play a far greater role in AiME, and what might seem like ‘fluff’ or ‘flavour’ at first glance could become vitally important in a long period of exploration. More on this later.

Cultures embedded in the setting

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By my reckoning, there are now close to 40 playable races in 5th edition D&D, including seven kinds of elf. Some players love this. For me, it’s system bloat. To paraphrase Keith Baker, creator of Eberron, I prefer to focus on fewer races but make sure that each one has a strong place in the setting. I don’t want my taverns to resemble a Mos Eisley cantina.

This is something AiME does really well. There are eleven cultures, most of them human (‘men’): the exceptions are, unsurprisingly, dwarves, elves, and hobbits. Your choice of culture affects not just your ability scores and racial features but also the way other NPCs respond to you: the Dúnedain, for example, are considered somewhat suspect by Bree-folk, hobbits, and the people of Minas Tirith, whereas hobbits are openly welcomed by Bardings, Bree-folk, and dwarves. Your culture also affects your starting equipment: wealthy dwarves begin with the better equipment than the more frugal Woodmen.

AiME also replaces feats with virtues, only five of which are open to all cultures. The others are culturally specific, meaning that only elves can take ‘Deadly Archery’, for instance, and only the Rohirrim can choose ‘Born to the Saddle’. Each virtue comes with a quote from Tolkien’s work, so you feel like your choice of culture matters and you are part of a wider world.

There and back again

Lord of the Rings - Choose Your Own Adventure

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5th edition D&D claims to be built upon three pillars: combat, exploration, and social interaction. When you experience D&D in play, though, you could be forgiven for thinking that only the first of these mattered. After all, the Player’s Handbook devotes an entire chapter to combat: exploration gets maybe a couple of pages.

In AiME, however, journeys are more important than dungeons. As the rules themselves say, ‘travelling is not simply a means of getting to a destination, nor something to be undertaken lightly.’ Heroes have to make a number of ability checks along the way, and depending on their successes, the DM’s die rolls, the length of the journey, and the difficulty of the terrain they are crossing, the company can arrive at its destination inspired and invigorated or crushed and exhausted.

It’s worth noting that, by default, heroes may only take short rests while on the road, and, of course, as befits the rest the low-magic atmosphere of Tolkien’s work, there is little magical healing. The mechanics of the game encourage players to find allies and build friendships on their travels in the hope that they can rely on their hospitality. Thus, the new rules for ‘audiences’ (social interaction) and ‘the fellowship phase’ (downtime) become very important.

The Shadow and corruption

I came, I saw...: Fog of War, Part 12: Mordor & Barad-Dur

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AiME does not use the alignment system. Player characters are assumed to be heroes (and are referred to as such in the rules), and every hero has a Shadow Weakness: a failing in their character that the Shadow seeks to exploit. This is based on their class: thus, a slayer might succumb to the curse of vengance, becoming spiteful or cruel or murderous, whereas a warden or a warrior can feel the lure of power, becoming arrogant, overconfident, or even tyrannical.

Characters can acquire Shadow points from behaving dishonourably, from experiencing distressing events, or from crosing an area tainted by the Shadow, as well as from taking possession of a cursed treasure. Overtime, this corruption can lead to degeneration and bouts of madness. Eventually, a hero who falls under the Shadow’s influence can be removed from the game. An elf of Mirkwood must sail to the West, and a character from any another culture will either starve to death in a solitary place, forsaken by men and beasts, or threaten others to the extent that they must be killed.

Deceit, theft, murder, even violent threats will quickly inrease your Shadow points, and once your Shadow points exceed your Wisdom score, you start to suffer bouts of madness. There are no murder hobos in AiME.

The road goes ever on and on

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New Line Cinema

With a bit of tweaking, AiME could work for any 5e game. I could see it as the basis for a low-magic Game of Thrones campaign or a D&D version of Legend of the Five Rings, where taint and corruption are a key part of the story. It’s a real shame the line has been discontinued, but with multiple region guides out there and even entire campaigns, there’s plenty of material on offer to help you get started. Give it a try.

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Rolling Stats

Wizards of the Coast

In 5th edition, there are three main ways of determining your ability scores.

One method is point buy, listed as a ‘variant’ in the Player’s Handbook. Another method – the simplest – is to take the array: 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8. But for many players, the default method, rolling, is going to be the most fun.

On average, rolling your ability scores will give you slightly better stats than you would get from point buy or the array. A party of four can hope for at least a couple of 18s between them, and they would be unlucky to roll anything lower than a five between them. Most players rolling their ability scores will get at least three good stats.

Sometimes, you roll well, and you have a golden opportunity to explore a character concept that might not have been possible with point buy. Sometimes, though, you roll badly, and you have to plan your character a little more carefully. This article looks at different ability contours and what you can do with them.

Preamble

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In some ways, ability scores don’t matter as much in 5th edition as they did in previous editions.

In 3rd edition, for instance, ability scores were often a prerequisite for feats. A fighter need a Dexterity of 13 for Dodge or an Intelligence of 13 for Expertise. And there was no cap on ability scores, so you had to pump them higher and higher as you gained levels. This was even more of an issue in 4th edition.

5th edition doesn’t really have ability requirements except for multiclassing, which is itself an optional rule. 5th edition also has an ability score cap of 20, so, if you get a +2 bonus from your race selection, it is possible to start the game with one of your ability scores already ‘maxed out’. Bonded accuracy means that target numbers (enemy ACs, save DCs, skill check DCs) progress more slowly than they did in previous editions, so there’s less pressure to keep pushing stats higher and higher, and if you want to take some feats instead, the game won’t punish you for it (much).

That said, if your ability scores are in the wrong place, you will feel it, and if your most used ability score is on the low side, your character won’t be as fun to play. A rogue needs a good Dexterity. A cleric’s effectiveness rests on Wisdom. And a paladin ideally needs Strength, Constitution, and Charisma.

Before we begin, then, it’s worth considering what we mean by a ‘good’ stat and whether there is a point where poor ability scores are essentially unplayable.

  • For the purposes of this article, I interpret a ‘good’ stat to be 14. To some extent, this is an arbitrary decision on my part, and you might feel that a 13 is viable if you’re playing a race with a +2 bonus in the right place. But anything lower than that just feels a bit ‘average’.
  • As for ‘unplayable’ scores, this, too, is arbitrary. 3rd edition had the following advice, which my group continues to stick to: ‘Your scores are considered too low if the sum of your modifiers (before adjustments because of race) is 0 or lower, or if your highest score is 13 or lower.’ However, 5th edition has no such proviso, and some groups might takae a dim view of rerolling low stats. Discuss this before you roll.

OK, then: you’ve rolled your stats, and you want to see if your character is viable. Let’s start from the bottom and go up from there.

No good stats

Blue Bear Barbarian and Cave Bear | Artist: Lake Hurwitz | Fantasy art,  Art, Dungeons and dragons

Wizards of the Coast

So, you rolled really, really badly, and your DM isn’t giving you a chance to reroll. What can you play? (Firstly, your DM is mean. Secondly, you are really unlucky. Only 7.2 percent of characters will roll no higher than a 13.)

The best option here is, as far as possible, to avoid playing a character who uses their ability scores for attack rolls and spell DCs. Of these, the stand-out choice for me is the Circle of the Moon druid. Once you hit 2nd level, you will be spending most of your time running around as a bear or what have you, and your low stats won’t matter. A wizard is also possible: you can choose spells which don’t require attack rolls or saves like colour spray, magic missile, and sleep. A wizard is probably better than a sorcerer here since a sorcerer’s spell selection is considerably more limited: a wizard can afford to pick some of the more utilitarian options available without feeling bound to them.

One good stat

This isn’t as rare as you might expect. In fact, if you roll your ability scores using 4d6 drop lowest, nearly 31 percent of characters will only roll one stat of 14 or higher. So there’s probably going to be someone at your table who ends up in this position.

If you only roll one good score, make it Dexterity. Why? Because Dexterity is the only ability score that can be used for offence and defence, not to mention skills and Initiative. There’s a reason some players online refer to it as the ‘god stat’.

If you have a good Dexterity and nothing else, the obvious route forward is a rogue. Cunning Action lets you jump in and out of combat without provoking opportunity attacks, and if that’s a bit risky, you can also use Sneak Attack from a distance. An archer-style ranger or fighter could also work well.

If you only have one good stat, other classes are going to be tricky. This is because most classes need not only a key ability score but a defensive ability score: Dexterity or Constituion. Dexterity helps you avoid getting hit: Constitution helps you survive getting hit. If both are low, you are going to have a hard time. A rogue is great in this regard because they use Dexterity for pretty much everything. A spellcaster can survive with one good stat if they play carefully, but, ideally, they want a good Constitution or Dexterity to survive combat.

Dungeons & Dragons 5E rogue class explained | Dicebreaker

Wizrads of the Coast

Two good stats

Most classes are perfectly feasible at this point. After all, this is what the default array will give you: two good stats. And if you’re rolling, most characters (69 percent of them, in fact) will get at least two 14s. Rather than going through every feasible class option, then, it’s perhaps more worthwhile to think about the classes that aren’t quite optimal yet, largely because they are MAD (multiple ability dependent).

Again, previous editions were arguably worse for this. Nonetheless, 5th edition still has a few MAD classes. The top two offenders are monks and paladins. Monks can get by with a good Dexterity and Wisdom, but with only a 1d8 hit die, they would benefit from Constitution, too. Paladins really need Strength and Constitution and Charisma to make the most of their potential.

Some might add barbarians and rangers to this list. Barbarians ideally want to have good scores in Strength, Constitution, and Dexterity, as they generally eschew armour. But the Dexterity is not essential. Similarly, rangers might want to have good scores in Dexterity, Wisdom, and Constitution, especially if they are wandering into melee fairly often, but there are builds that don’t require this.

There is, of course, one other route which can be multi-ability dependent, and that’s multiclassing. As I’ve written about here, some multiclass combinations are better than others, and MAD is a key factor in this. If you have two good stats, you are going to want classes that rely on the same ability scores, like Charisma-based spellcasters or Dex-based fighters.

Three good stats

Dungeons & Dragons: Best Monk Builds | Game Rant

Wizards of the Coast

As explained above, you are now in a place to play characters who are MAD. Yay! 36.29 percent of characters roll three or more scores of 14 or higher, which is 36.29 percent more than those playing with the default array. You took a risk with rolling, and it paid off. So, if you want to play a paladin, a monk, a barbarian, or a ranger, you should find your stats are in good shape.

So: what can a player with four good stats do?

Four or more good stats

Only 12.29 percent of characters roll four stats of 14 or higher. If you’re lucky enough to be in that situation, you can start to play some really MAD multiclass builds. Barbarian/warlock! Monk/wizard! Cleric/sorcerer! Or, take a single-class character and build them in a more unconventional way. A ranger with heavy weapons. A sorcerer who wanders into melee. A monk with all the social skills.

Many of your favourite characters in film will have four or more high stats. James Bond is at the peak of his physical fitness, for example, but also perceptive, charming, and highly intelligent. Likewise Batman. Likewise Indiana Jones. Even Gandalf wades into the fray swinging Glamdring through the orcs. If you are lucky enough to get four or more good stats, make the most of it. You probably have the best stats in the party: if ever there were a time to do something a bit special, this is it.

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How to DM when you don’t have time to prep

Wizards of the Coast

Back in lockdown, I was able to DM and play in four or five games a week. Since term restarted, that has gone to pot rather. Being a DM can seem like a full-time job, and there will be weeks (like this one, in my case) where you just can’t find the time to prep.

How do you get around that?

Option 1: take a break

If you’re like me, you hate doing this. It is a last resort. As a DM and a player, I can forget an awful lot in the week between sessions, and if that goes up to two weeks, then it’s easy to lose momentum.

At the end of the day, though, DMs are human. Life gets in the way sometimes, and if your players are your friends, they will understand this. DM burnout is real, and most DMs are guilty of overthinking what the players expect of them. If you take a week or two off, no one will judge you for it. Similarly, if you come to a session having done a bit less prep than you’d like, your players probably won’t notice and probably won’t care. They want to make jokes, roll dice, and feel badass. You don’t need much prep for that.

If you do take a week or two off, why not ask if someone wants to do a one-shot? We all have a crazy character concept knocking around somewhere: now’s your chance to introduce them! (Mine was a goblin maniac called Rakanishu who cut people down to size with serrated scimitars and yelled out Borderlands-style insults like ‘I’m going to play the xylophone on your spinal column.’ It was fun – if disturbing.) Or, if your players are up for it, run a different system for a session or two. I’ve been meaning to try Feng Shui 2, Call of Cthulhu, Adventures in Middle-Earth, and Dungeon World. Who knows? Maybe you’re fall in love with the system and leave D&D behind. Maybe you’ll find an element of the system that you want to incorporate into your regular game. Or, maybe a brief diversion into another system will remind you what it is you liked about D&D all along.

100 Long Rest Events – Dndspeak

Run a dungeon

If you’re pushed for time, run a dungeon.

Storytelling is hard. Roleplaying NPCs takes energy. Both, in my experience, require a degree of nimbleness on the DM’s part. Dungeons, on the other hand, are self-contained and predictable. If you’re pushed for time, you can grab a map, roll up a few random encounters, and your players will have plenty of fun. This is D&D: combat is a big part of the game. There’s a whole chapter on it, for goodness sake.

I wrote about improvising dungeons on the fly earlier last month.

Start strong

This is a tip from Sly Flourish – and it’s a good one.

The start of your session is the one scene you have complete control over (more or less). After this point, the players can take the game in all sorts of whacky directions, but the strong start is plannable. If you’re pushed for time, then, and you can only spend half an hour prepping, think about your opening scene. Plan it in the shower, on your way to work, on your phone, in your lunch break . . . what can you throw at the players that will make them sit up and listen?

Fill time

This might seem like a bit of a cheat, but there are ways to fill the airtime of a session without increasing the prep load for yourself.

  • Puzzles! A good puzzle can have the players scratching their heads for ages. You could devise one yourself, but you could just as easily steal one from the Internet.
  • Tough encounters. Generally speaking, the harder the encounter, the more session time it’s going to consume. If the players haven’t felt particularly stretched for a while, throw something ridiculous at them. (Of course, don’t overuse this trick, and be very careful of throwing unbalanced encounters at Tier 1 characters.)
  • Waves of enemies. These don’t necessarily have to be tough, but they are memorable nonetheless. Think about some of your favourite fight scenes in film. How many enemies were the heroes fighting?
  • Downtime. Many DMs run this in between sessions, but if you don’t have time to prep tonight, why not run your session as a downtime session? Players can have a lot of fun doing stuff which frankly doesn’t matter that much in the big scheme of things. Xanathar’s Guide to Everything has some excellent random tables for carousing, buying magic items, gambling, etc.
How to make D&D combat less stressful for novice Dungeon Masters

Wizards of the Coast

Let the players take over

DM overreach is a thing, and sometimes DMs overprep because they feel they owe the players a good time. As with rules-lawyering, it’s a sentiment that comes from a good place – but it’s problematic.

The DM is not solely responsible for the fun that’s had at the table. Players have a part to play, too.

Everyone’s a bit different in this regard. Some DMs are very active storytellers and bring a lot of themselves to the table (Matt Mercer, for example). Others – Chris Perkins, for example – can seem quieter, and seem to spend a lot more time listening. Neither approach is wrong. At the best tables, though, it is never just the DM who is contributing towards the story. So, step back a bit. Ask your players questions. Get them to describe something in the room; talk to them about what happens when they rest; find out what’s interesting about their journey. Ultimately, relax: let them do some of the prep work for you

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Using Published Campaign Settings

Wizards of the Coast

Making your own homebrew campaign setting can be a daunting undertaking. World-building can be very time-consuming, and if you’re not really that interested in cartography, demographics, cosmologies, pantheons, and so forth, you might find yourself reaching for a someone else’s work.

How should you go about using a published campaign setting?

Where to start?

A published campaign setting can be overwhelming because of the sheer volume of lore you are drawing upon. The Forgotten Realms Campaign Set was released in 1987. Greyhawk, Gary Gygax’s home setting, was created at least a decade earlier. Even Eberron, a relative newcomer on the D&D scene, is now 16 years old and has appeared in three different editions of the game. It can be hard to know where to start.

Here are my tips.

1. Choose your flavour

Published D&D settings can be very different. Think about the general ‘vibe’ you’re going for, and go from there. To summarize a few:

  • The Forgotten Realms is the official campaign setting of 5th edition and probably the most widely played. It is a fairly ‘vanilla’ fantasy world.
  • Greyhawk, too, is something of a ‘generic fantasy setting’. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course!)
  • Eberron might best be described as ‘magitek’ or ‘dungeon punk’, drawing its inspiration from pulp advenure stories and film noir.
  • Dragonlance, based on the novel series of the same name, is a bit more high fantasy. The balance of good and evil is a key theme.
  • Ravenloft is dark fantasy or gothic. Curse of Strahd gives you a good sense of its tone.
  • Dark Sun is a godless post-apocalyptic desert world with sword and sorcery elements.
  • Planescape centres around Sigil, the City of Doors, a strange metropolis that lies outside the multiverse and a hub for a vast network of magic portals.
  • Spelljammer is . . . D&D in space.

You’ve also got the Inner Sea region, the excellent setting of the Pathfinder RPG, and the various Magic: The Gathering crossovers, if that’s your thing.

It’s worth mentioning that only two of these settings have received substantial 5th edition support: Eberron and the Forgotten Realms. It’s also worth setting that many of these settings have many different flavours within them. Eberron, for example, could be a Raiders of the Lost Ark–style temple run in Xen’drik, a Chandleresque hard-boiler in Sharn, a Lovecraftian cosmic horror story from the Far Realms, or something else entirely.

2. Start local

Storytelling in All its Forms: The Dragon of Icespire Peak Campaign Diary -  Episode 1 - Welcome to Phandalin

Wizards of the Coast

This is the approach of Lost Mine of Phandelver and Dragon of Icespire Peak, both set in the small frontier town of Phandalin and its environs. ‘The Forgotten Forge’, the 1st-level adventure in the original Eberron Campaign Setting, takes place entirely in Sharn. There is no reason to cover the whole world at once. Start small and build out from there.

This is a good tip for any campaign, frankly, especially if you start at 1st level. The world that matters the most is the world you build with the players. However, there does come a point where you want to increase the scope. As a rule of thumb, consider expanding out a little with each tier of play. Go to Xen’drik in Tier 2. Have a big bust-up between nations in Tier 3. Walk the planes in Tier 4. Or mix it up. The Dungeon Master’s Guide has some good guidance on pages 36–38.

3. Steal, steal, steal

One of the advantages of using a published campaign setting is the abundance of material you can borrow from, so take advantage of it! Raid old modules, ask questions on subreddits, consult the Dungeon Masters Guild and DriveThruRPG for sourcebooks old and new. The biggest campaign settings have wikis that are fairly reliable, and creators like Ed Greenwood and Keith Baker (to name but two) are fantastic for regularly sharing their thoughts about their settings on Twitter and their own websites.

What can you steal? Maps, art, monsters, NPCs, dungeons, artifacts, storylines, lore. In short: anything! It’s your campaign, and the published material is there to make your life easier. There’s no shame whatsoever and borrowing liberally from any sources you can find.

4. Drill down the ‘aspects’

This is a trick from Fate Core that I find handy.

‘Aspects’ are Fate’s big thing. An aspect is a phrase that describes something unique or noteworthy about whatever it’s attached to. If you find the copious background reading on your campaign setting to be a bit much, try reducing the setting down to a series of aspects.

Silver Marches | 5th Age Campaigns' home rules | Obsidian Portal

Wizards of the Coast

For example, let’s say we’re running a campaign in the Forgotten Realms. One of my favourite parts of the Realms is the Silver Marches, sometimes called Luruar. At kingdom scale, I might pick out eight to ten key sites that want to remember and then reduce them to ‘aspects’. It might look something like this:

  • Silverymoon: beautiful city of culture and magic
  • Everlund: mercantile city ruled by council of elders
  • Sundabar: harsh fortress city
  • Citadel Adbar: massive dwarven fortress
  • Citadel Felbarr: reclaimed dwarven citadel
  • Mithral Hall: dwarven mining stronghold
  • Beorunna’s Well: ancestral home of the Black Lion barbarians
  • The Evermoors: vast, foggy, troll-infested bog

This might be a bit minimalist for some, but for time-pressed DMs, it can be a useful shorthand. You can then improvise around these descriptions and make the setting your own (see the sixth point, below).

5. Three big schemers

Published campaign settings are not just a series of locations: they are also filled with people and organizations. And sometimes, the sheer number of forces at work can be a little intimidating for someone new to the setting.

My tip: restrict yourself to three big movers and shakers at any one time. In the Forgotten Realms, your campaign might revolve around the Lords’ Alliance, the Arcane Brotherhood, and the Kingdom of Many-Arrows. For Eberron, you might focus on the Aurum, the Dark Lanterns, and House Cannith. Obviously there’s no need to make this an absolute rule – by all means throw in a fourth or fifth if you want – but too many factions can lead to gambit pileup. Give your players a chance to learn more and more about the factions they know well and let the others slip into the background.

6. Break canon: kill your darlings

Wizards of the Coast

One of the biggest problems with a published campaign setting is the feeling that you have to honour it in some way. ‘What if my players know the setting better than I do?’ ‘Is my Sharn “accurate”?’ ‘Will the players want to meet Drizzt Do’Urden?’

Don’t let a published setting overshadow your own creativity. Ed Greenwood doesn’t want you to do that. Keith Baker doesn’t want you to do that. Your players don’t want you to do that.

More important than any of the other tips in this article is this one: make the setting your own. Do you want to run a Waterdeep campaign with Victorian-era technology? Go for it. Do you want an Eberron campaign where the Lord of Blades won the Last War and machines rule the world, Terminator style? Sounds fun. Fancy a Rime of the Frostmaiden–Dark Sun mash-up, with a post-apocalyptic tundra instead of a blasted desert world? Give it a try.

Whatever game you run, make sure the heroes at the heart of it. If you want to introduce Volo or Elminster or Drizzt or Mordenkainen, feel free to. But its your heroes’ story, not theirs. Treat a published campaign setting as a starting point, not an endpoint. If you want to rip it up and do your own thing with it, do. Make whatever changes you want.

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Making Combat Engaging

Wizards of the Coast

Of the three pillars of D&D, combat is the one most defined in the rules, and, for most groups, it’s going to take up a significant part of each session. D&D is a complex game, though, and, handled badly, combat has the chance to become repetitive, frustrating, or tedious. How, then, can we make combat as exciting and evocative as it should be?

1. Not all combats are equally engaging

This may feel like a cop-out, but it’s worth stating at the outset. Some combats are more meaningful, more challenging, or more memorable than others. Sometimes, the purpose of a combat is simply to give the players a chance to feel badass: a quick distraction from the rest of the session. Not every battle is a tense, vivdly described setpiece, and that’s a good thing.

2. Mix it up

Once you accept that combat comes in many different forms, embrace the variety that comes with it. Things to consider:

  • Are there lots of enemies or just a few?
  • Are they big or small? Weak or powerful? Cunning or instinctive?
  • Is this an easy fight, a deadly fight, or something in between?
  • Is there a mix of enemies?
  • Do the enemies come in waves?
  • Is there any interesting terrain?
  • Does either side have the chance to surprise the other?
  • Can the players avoid the fight through stealth or diplomacy?
  • What do the enemy want?
  • What do the players want?
  • Is there a third party involved in the fight?

A common mistake in 5e is to throw too many difficult encounters at a group. Challening ‘life or death’ encounters might seem exciting, but ultimately this style of play pushes the party into having a five-minute adventuring day, with all the problems thay come with it. Justin Alexander makes a good case for roster-style scenarios in a series of essays, starting here.

Wizards of the Coast

3. Keep it moving

This is a big one for me, especially in a group of more than four players.

Let’s say you are playing with a group of five players and a DM. If each person spends two minutes taking their turn, you will have to wait ten minutes before you can do anything. That’s a long time of sitting around listening to other people do stuff. If each player’s turn takes 30 seconds, you’re only having to wait for two and a half minutes. Much better.

People usually take too long on their turns for one of two reasons. Either, a, they are not ready to take their turn, or, b, they are hogging the spotlight. More on this later.

If a player isn’t ready on their turn, this isn’t necessarily their fault. Perhaps something unexpected happened, and their planned course of action has been scuppered. Perhaps, frankly, they are disengaged because other players are taking too long. Perhaps you’re playing online, and they are having connection issues. Perhaps they are new to D&D. Perhaps, though, the player needs to know their character better. Have a conversation with them. Give them a hand. Make a crib sheet for what they can do on their turn. It can be particularly challenging for spellcasters or classes with lots of different options like monks and paladins. But, players, you should understand the core mechanics of your class. If the DM can manage a million different things at once, you should be able to play the same character every session without slowing down the game for everyone else.

Wizards of the Coast

4. Spotlight hogging

Like rules lawyering, this one varies by group. It may not be a huge problem for you. And like rules lawyering, it comes from a good place. If a player is waxing lyrical with florid descriptions of their character’s actions, they are probably fun and wanting to make the game fun for everyone else. But it can get a bit much.

When you deconstruct a player’s turn in D&D, they are – most of the time – making attacks and dealing damage. Do you need to describe every attack? Every hit? Every miss?

An argument can be made that describing every hit and miss is a result of misunderstanding hit points. It’s worth reiterating: hit points are an abstraction. To quote the Player’s Handbook, ‘Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck.’ If a frost giant takes 16 damage from a longsword, what does that mean? A big cut? A little cut? A shock? A visible reduction in his or her ‘will to live’? I often bristle a bit when players ask ‘how damaged does it look?’ and not just because it’s blatant metagaming. It just doesn’t really make sense.

A suggestion, then. Describe the first hit, the killing blow, and the blow that puts an enemy onto half hit points (‘bloodied’ in 4th edition parlance). These are the hits that matter. And DMs, if it seems bathetic for an ancient red dragon to be killed by a club or what you, just because it only had a few hit points remaining, well . . . keep it alive! And likewise, if the paladin gives it a walloping with divine smite, but it technically still has a few hit points remaining, well, fudge it, and let the paladin describe the killing blow. Rule of cool.

5. DM hacks

There are a few tricks you can use as a DM to keep combat moving, too. Some suggestions:

  • Use average damage for NPCs.
  • Use online dice rollers for big hits
  • Pre-roll attacks and damage while players are deciding their actions
  • Have enemies run away on 40 percent of their hp (a tip from Keith Ammann at The Monsters Know What They’re Doing)
  • Round damage and hit points up and down to the nearest multiple of five. Players won’t notice, and it keeps the maths manageable.
  • Eschew the grid for theatre of the mind.

This final point is not for everyone, and it depends on the type of game you want to play. Sly Flourish makes some excellent points as to why theatre of the mind has its place, and I largely agree. In general: if a combat is simple enough that a grid would slow it down, lose the grid. And, conversely, if it is complex enough to make theatre of the mind confusing, map it out.

One more DM trick: ambience! Whether it’s an exciting soundtrack ,or an awesome DM screen, or a set of really cool miniatures, art, music and props can really flesh out a combat and make it memorable. It’s always a great moment when the DM slaps down a massive mini on the table for the big boss fight. Don’t ignore these extra things.

Marisha Ray on Twitter: "The Ascended.... #CriticalRole… "

Marisha Ray on Twitter (@Marisha_Ray)

6. Evocative description

Engaging combat isn’t all about speedy pacing, of course. Evocative description is a key part of the DM’s toolkit.

I say the DM’s toolkit, but players are just as important here. After all, in most battles, the players’ turns will take up much more time than the DM’s. As explained above, you don’t need to explain every action. But when you want to go big, how do you do that?

Essentially, this is all about good descriptive writing. Some tips:

  • Focus on verbs, not adverbs. A sword can swing, slice, stab, slash, parry, whistle, impale, cut . . . These verbs are clear and vivid. Adverbs, by comparison, don’t have quite the same impact.
  • Match your description to the dice roll. A hit of ten damage does not need a paragraph.
  • Make a little thesaurus for your character! If you’re using a sword 99 percent of the time, you don’t want to run out of verbs in the first session.
  • Study action films for inspiration. Pause the action and have a go at describing what you see .
  • Don’t forget the other senses. Battle is noisy, emotional, even smelly. Capture that.

One last thought: DMs, don’t describe the players’ actions! They only have one character to roleplay: if you take that away from them, they might as well stay at home. Give them their chance to shine.

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Tomb Raider in D&D

Over the summer, I replayed through some of the latest Tomb Raider games. I’m a big fan. For me, they achieve a really nice balance between several different gameplay elements: exploration, puzzles, stealth, and, of course, combat. And these are all elements you can embrace in D&D!

In this article, I’m going to explore how you could recreate the ‘feel’ of Tomb Raider in your Dungeons & Dragons campaign. If you’re a fan of similar games – the Uncharted series or even some of the old LucasArts Indy games – much of this advice is transferable. However, this is not really a guide to recreating Lara Croft as a D&D character. But, hey: if you want to be a thief-archetype human rogue with dual hand crossbows and the noble background, I’m sure no one will mind.

A few limitations

There are a few stumbling blocks to cross with a Tomb Raider–style approach to D&D.

Firstly, Tomb Raider is a very visual video game, and many of its platformer elements – jumping, climbing, balancing, tumbling, etc – may need to be stripped back a bit for tabletop play, especially where there are multiple moving parts involved and the exploration takes place across all three dimensions at once (eg, here and here).

Secondly, D&D is a fantasy game with spells and magic, and some of the Tomb Raiderstyle puzzles are going to prove less of a challenge to groups with access fly, teleport, telekinesis, and so on. Even low-level spells like misty step and mage hand could be used imaginatively to negate many Tomb Raider puzzles.

Finally, for most of the games in the series, Lara is on her own and has to be self-sufficient, whereas D&D is fundamentally a party-based game. This last problem is arguably less significant than the others (not least because solo play is possible) but could still prove tricky for the dynamics of the game. If a puzzle requires athleticism and acrobatics, for example, and you’re playing a slow and clumsy dwarven cleric in full plate . . . you’re going to have a hard time.

Rise Of The Tomb Raider Guide: Finding The Ice Ship Optional Tomb | Attack  of the Fanboy

What are the solutions?

  • Work with the group to create characters who are better suited for the game style you have in mind. If players are happy to eschew magic and make their own versions of Lara (or Nate or Indy come to that), then it could be a very fun diversion from traditional D&D!
  • Tone down the physical aspect of the puzzles, and focus instead on puzzles that are more cerebral. Tomb Raider puzzles often involve pushing objects around, moving around a 3D map, timing a jump just right . . . as a DM, this can all be wearisome to describe without a decent visual aid to help you. Consider reducing the movement to simple skill checks and make the puzzle itself the interesting part.
  • Up the ante and give the characters multiple threats to deal with at once. Puzzles are harder to solve when enemies are trying to kill you, and the range of threats on offer will give all the players in the party something to focus on.
  • Very occasionally, use your DM powers to negate some of the party’s powers. In Tomb of Annihilation and Dungeon of the Mad Mage, for instance, many divination and teleportation spells don’t function normally. Be careful not to overuse this, though, as it can be frustrating for a player to have their character ‘nerfed’ like this.

The world of Tomb Raider

By default, D&D settings are quasi-medieval fantasy. Gun-toting Lara Croft, on the other hand, is fundamentally modern. So what makes a D&D world feel like Tomb Raider?

  • Myths and legends are real. So far, the Tomb Raider series has given us, among other things: Atlantis; Area 51; the Egyptian god Set; Excalibur; Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir; the Dragon’s Triangle; Kitezh; Baba Yaga; Paititi. Whatever the lore of your world, these people, items, and places need to be central to the story.
  • Powerful enemy organizations. Whether it’s Natla Technologies, the Fiamma Nera, R.X.Tech, or Trinity, your world needs some kind of well-outfitted international hit mob. In Faerûn, this could be the Red Wizards or the Zhentarim; in Eberron, the Order of the Emerald Claw or the Aurum would be a good fit. Make sure the leader is misguided and power-hungry
  • Ancient wonders. In Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, Mike Shea encourages us to make locations fantastic using age and size. Never has this been more relevant.

Puzzles and exploration

Tomb of the Nine Gods | Forgotten Realms Wiki | Fandom

Wizards of the Coast

Tomb Raider has never been just an action game, and if it were a D&D game, exploration would be the most important of the three pillars. How, then, can we capture the excitement of exploring a new tomb and solving ancient puzzles?

  • Exploration is all about pathfinding. Make the journey as exciting as the destination. Give players meaningful choices and intriguing obstacles to overcome.
  • Go big on your descriptions. As alluded to above, make your locations big, old, and wondrous. Make your players gasp with awe, and make sure it keeps getting cooler and cooler. A zigguarat in the desert is one thing, but having a lost city beneath it is even cooler.
  • Don’t overthink the realism of it. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara finds a lost Byzantine ship preserved in a glacial cavern. Who cares how it got there? D&D is a world of fantasy. If something seems a bit crazy and fantastical, you’re doing it right. Just say a wizard did it.
  • Make the environment interactive. Water, mud, lava, natural gas, pits, chasms, machinery, ropes: whatever it is, make your locations a playground. I have written about battlefield environments here. Don’t be afraid to change or even destroy your adventurers’ surroundings. at some point in the reboot series, Lara will always have to escape a tomb that is falling apart. It might be a cliché, but it’s fun: embrace it.
  • Steal puzzles from everywhere. Stories, films, video games, subreddits, old modules: don’t be afraid to take inspiration for your puzzles from a variety of sources. Tomb of Annihilation has some particularly good puzzles, both in Omu and within the eponymous tomb itself. Players won’t necessarily notice if you reflavour the details in some way. Heck, steal from the Tomb Raider games themselves!
  • The natural world can be Lara’s playground, too. How will your D&D characters survive in frozen mountains? Desert sands? The deepest jungles? This is more a feature of the rebooted series from 2013 onwards, but it’s a welcome addition to the game. Give your players scenarios where they lose everything and have to hunt for resources to survive.
  • Make rewards feel special and part of the game’s lore. Like Indiana Jones and Nathan Drake, Lara Croft is an archaeologist who prizes historical artefacts. Consider portioning off your treasure in small parcels, and go big on your descriptions to make them feel special. Let the players learn about the world and its stories through the items they find on their travels.

Combat

Lara Croft Fights a Bear in Rise of the Tomb Raider - YouTube

Gunfights seem to have become a bigger part of the Tomb Raider series over time, especially since the 2013 reboot, but it’s clearly an element that many fans of the series are OK with. Tomb Raider is still not a first-person shooter, though, and combat in the game comes with its own particular flavour.

  • Aim for waves of enemies over big solo boss fights. Actually, this is good advice for 5th edition D&D in general. More than ten can start to get a bit unwieldy, so start with, say, five or six enemies, and add more and more as the battle goes on.
  • Make boss fights a puzzle in their own right. In the Tomb Raider games, a boss is rarely just a bag of hit points. There needs to be some kind of vulnerability that the characters can exploit: a weakness or ‘trick’ that will bring the enemy down.
  • Give players the chance to see enemies get tougher as they level up. In the rebooted Tomb Raider series, Lara starts off against lightly armoured opponents, wolves, and the like, before progressing to better equiped soldiers and, ultimately, supernatural threats. D&D is good at simulating this anyway, but it bears mentioning. Guards (CR ⅛) are replace by veterans (CR 3) who are replaced by barbed devils, mezzoloths, or wraiths (CR 5).
  • Give players the chance to avoid combat. Sometimes Lara doesn’t have a choice, and the challenge is surviving wave after wave of enemies. But often, with a bit of planning and stealth, there’s an alternative route. Let players choose their own path.

A Tomb Raider–style game might be a fun one-shot or it could form the basis for a whole campaign. Give it a try!

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Improvising Dungeons

Wizards of the Coast

For teachers like me, this week marks the start of a new term: a busy time. If you’re a DM, real-life workload can be a significant barrier to your game prep. How do you get ready for a session when you’re completely snowed under?

This article explores how we can prep less and improvise more, with a focus on dungeons.

Option one: steal

If time is an issue, remind yourself that you don’t have to make something new for your players to have a good time! Reuse old modules, have a look at the DMs Guild, go back through old notes. If you’ve got something serviceable, be kind to yourself and spend your planning time on something else.

In my current campaign, the party was exploring a creepy rural town called Gimmerton (a name Wuthering Heights fans might recognize). I had to improvise something, and I remembered that there was a whole section of Curse of Strahd, Wachterhaus, which I had never used, despite DMing the adventure twice. So I stole it in its entirety. It worked fine, and I don’t think any of the players were particularly conscious of my stealing it.

A good map

If you can’t steal an adventure, you can at least find a good map. Dyson Logos has a fantastic range, but it’s also worth following cartographers on social media, like Mike Shley, Anna B Meyer, and 2-Minute Tabletop, to name a few. Reddit has some great mapping communities, too, like r/battlemaps, r/dndmaps, and r/mapmaking.

If none of these maps is quite what you’re looking for, you can, of course, generate one. The Dungeon Master’s Guide has random dungeon tables in Appendix A, and donjon has a great random dungeon generator with a considerable number of ‘dials’ to play with. Donjon maps can also be imported into Dungeon Scrawl, a very cool map-maker, still in beta, but well worth checking out.

A black-and-white style Dungeon Scrawl map

Five-room dungeons

These dungeons are simple enough to make in your head, and can probably provide enough for fun for a couple of hours’ play at least. You only need these five steps:

  1. Entrance with a guardian
  2. A puzzle or roleplaying challenge
  3. A trick or setback
  4. A big climax
  5. Reward and revelation

The idea is generally credited to JohnnFour, and you will find numerous examples of it in action across the Internet (eg, here). It’s such a good idea that Wizards of the Coast used it for their model adventure in the 4th edition DMG.

Wizards of the Coast

Inhabitants and treasure

This post is titled ‘Improvising Dungeons’, and a dungeon, of course, is more than just a map. If you’re having to improvise encounters and rewards, how do you do that?

Encounters can be tricky. To some extent, it takes a bit of practice to get a feel for it. There are decent online encounter calculators like Kobold Fight Club and the one on D&D Beyond (still currently in beta), but, in truth, there’s no such thing as perfect encounter balance, and 5th edition is filled with spiky edges that can make encounters unpredictable. Use these calculators to get a sense of difficulty levels and which monsters are going to be too easy or too hard, but then improvise from there. Encounter balance matters more at lower levels when characters have fewer hit points and players have fewer options to avoid difficult situations.

As a general rule of thumb:

  • avoid solos
  • aim for encounters of ‘medium’ difficulty
  • try to use one or two monsters per player

Making an encounter more challenging is always easier than making it less deadly.

Part of my prep for a session is to jot down a few monsters of different challenge ratings with a note as to how many I can use without overwhelming the party. In my campaign, characters tend to level up once every three or four sessions, so these notes remain useful for several weeks, usually.

An example of my session notes. This is for a group of four 8th-level characters.

If you’re improvising a dungeon, don’t worry too much about treasure. If you give out too much, just hold back a bit on the rewards for a few sessions before you give out any more. Be careful with major (ie, permanent) magic items, though. As a general guide, an adventuring group should only get a couple of uncommon items in Tier 2, and probably shouldn’t get to see rare, very rare, and legendary items until 10th, 16th, and 19th level, respectively. But, of course, you do you. Characters in Curse of Strahd can pick up a legendary item at level 3, so, if it fits your story, go for it.

Final thoughts: describing on the fly

6/30/18 | Heroes of Dolgetta | Obsidian Portal

Wizards of the Coast

For me, maps and monsters are the easy bit. The challenging bit is coming up with an evocative description. Some tricks, then:

  • Focus on one or two prominent features: an altar, a pit, a statue
  • Keep it brief and give players the chance to ask further questions
  • Think about the five senses, not just the visual
  • Steal! If you want your own Bridge of Khazad-dûm or rolling boulder idol trap, go for it!
  • It’s improv, not creative writing: a quick, brief, clear description is infinitely better than a long, slow, flowery one
  • Don’t worry too much about verisimilitude (your players probably won’t).

Finally – a controversial tip – ask your players to contribute to the description. ‘What does the mural show?’ ‘What are you looking for at the desk?’ ‘What do you think is beyond the door?’ Great DMing doesn’t happen in a vacuum: a great game absolutely requires players to do their bit, too. We all build the world together.

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