What Next for 5th Edition?

Wizards of the Coast

On Monday, Wizards of the Coast revealed that their next product would be Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, a collection of new rules and character options in the vein of 2017’s Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Tasha’s Cauldron promises to include new subclasses, new spells and magic items, new rules for running sidekicks, and some intriguing guidance on how to run a session zero, as well as some reprinted material from Eberron: Rising from the Last War (including group patrons and the artificer class). Judging by the responses on social media, fans generally seem to be pretty excited about this.

Thinking about this new sourcebook, I asked Twitter and Reddit for what people would like to see from D&D over the next couple of years. After 400-plus comments, there are definite trends emerging: some expected, some rather surprising.

Spelljammer confirmed’

Giff Playable Race | New Player Option for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition  – FREE Fifth Edition Monsters, Maps, and More

Wizards of the Coast

Calls on D&D forums for a new Spelljammer book are the RPG equivalent of ‘Play “Free Bird”!’ at rock concerts. The setting which introduced the idea of D&D in space was born in 1989 and hasn’t been given any official rules support this side of the millennium, yet there is clearly a diehard group of fans who would be overjoyed by a new Spelljammer book and are hanging on Wizards of the Coast’s every word. There have been teases, perhaps – neogi were introduced in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, giffs in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, and illithid ships makes appearances in both Dungeon of the Mad Mage and the upcoming Baldur’s Gate III – but there hasn’t been anything official, yet.

Maybe it’s not Spelljammer’s time. Either way, there is clearly an appetite for a non-Faerûnian campaign setting. Planescape is a common request, as is Dark Sun, which was revived in 4th edition, but Greyhawk, Ravenloft, and even Nentir Vale have been put forward. Frankly, even somewhere outside the Sword Coast would be a breath of fresh air. So far, Chult is the only other part of the Forgotten Realms we have seen in an official adventure, and Ghosts of Saltmarsh is the only adventure to be set outside Faerûn (although Curse of Strahd takes place almost entirely within its own demiplane, so that probably should count, too).

Another popular request is non-European fantasy, especially settings that are Middle Eastern, Mesoamerican, East Asian, or African in flavour. However, this would need to be handled carefully, and Wizards of the Coast are probably wary of insensitivity. Tomb of Annihilation has been criticized for stereotypical tropes, and older sourcebooks like Oriental Adventures – still available for sale on DriveThruRPG, despite the disclaimer – are even worse. Regardless, the demand for such settings remains high.

The return of the module?

‘Campaign-adventures’ like Curse of Strahd and Storm King’s Thunder have become the norm in 5th edition. These hardback tomes run to 250 pages and cover at least two tiers of play (usually), offering potentially hours of material. But it wasn’t always thus. Before 5th edition, ‘modules’ were often much shorter, not to mention cheaper: softcover booklets of 32 pages or so, and normally just a single dungeon like The Sunless Citadel or The Forge of Fury. There would be enough content for one or two levels of play, and if the adventure was event based, the plot would be simple and fairly linear.

While the unveiling of a new ‘storyline’ is always a big event for Wizards of the Coast, there is clearly some fondness for shorter, more modular adventures. They’re quicker to read, kinder on the wallet, and easier to slot into an existing homebrew campaign. It feels like Wizards may be listening to fans on this as Ghosts of Saltmarsh and Rime of the Frostmaiden, two of the most recent adventures, are designed around a series of shorter, more self-contained adventures that can be run separately or as a longer, connected narrative.

Interestingly, D&D’s closest competitor, Pathfinder, made extensive use of shorter modules throughout its first edition, and seems to be following a similar approach in its new, second edition. While some of these adventures had a tendency to be a bit railroady, a number of them were very well liked, and two, Rise of the Runelords and Curse of the Crimson Throne, ended up being released as special hardbook editions. Maybe there’s something for Wizards to take note of here.

More character options

D&D Adventurers League: The Secret Your DM Doesn't Want You to Know! -  Wizard's Laboratory

Wizards of the Coast

Other than new settings, the most popular request on Reddit was for more options: feats, spells, classes, subclasses, races, subraces, monsters, magic items. Tashas Cauldron of Everything, then, is much anticipated!

Several users have noted that despite multiple treatments in Unearthed Arcana, including a new ‘mystic’ class, psionics has still not appeared as official content. In both 3rd and 4th editions, rules for psionics were released relatively early, in 2001 and 2010 respectively. Yet in 5th edition, the game designers haven’t been able to make the mystic work, and it’s looking increasingly likely that psionics will appear as subclasses of existing classes (a psychic warrior fighter, for example) rather than a whole new set of mechanics. Given the importance of psionics within the world of Athas, a Dark Sun campaign setting would be a fitting place to publish them.

It has also been pointed out that 5th edition is relatively light in terms of its support for higher level play. For example, only two of the official hardback adventures so far have covered the fourth tier of play: Rise of Tiamat and Dungeon of the Mad Mage. There are reasons for this: 90 percent of D&D campaigns never progress beyond 10th level, and encounter balancing gets increasingly unwieldy the higher up you go. As time rolls by, though, there are only going to be more and more groups gaining access to high-level play. A Manual of the Planes for 5th edition – Leomund’s Guide, perhaps? – could tie in well with this. There has been some kind of planar guide in every edition except 2nd, so a 5th-edition equivalent would be welcome. It would also be interesting to see whether 5th edition could return to the paragon paths and epic destinies of 4th edition: player choices which, like subclasses, had a significant impact on the growth of a character over time.

6th Edition?

Sapphire dragon | Forgotten Realms Wiki | Fandom

The sapphire dragon for D&D’s 45th anniversary

There seemed to be a firm consensus that another edition in the next two years was neither likely nor necessary. 5th edition is probably the most popular edition of Dungeons & Dragons ever. It took several years to playtest and has one won over thousands of new players, and won back plenty of others who jumped ship to other RPGs after 4th edition left them disappointed. Wizards of the Coast have deliberately avoided rushing out new products and have generally stuck to a model of one or two campaign adventures a year plus one or two sourcebooks. Generally speaking, this has kept quality high and helped to aoid the ‘rules bloat’ that came to define 3rd edition and games based upon it. A new edition would probably alienate more players than it would win over.

That said, it’s clear that there are fundamental problems with the skeleton of 5th edition which can’t be ironed out with house rules and other hacks. The issue of linear warriors, quadratic wizards remains. Encounter balancing is a bit of a mess. The game is supposedly built around the three pillars, yet the rulebooks have whole chapters on combat and next to nothing on exploration and social interaciton. For some players, D&D is ‘broken’ enough to make them explore other RPGs, whether it’s Old School Revival retroclones like Old School Essentials or crunchier systems like Pathfinder 2e. For most people, though, it seems like 5th edition succeeds more than it fails. At least, that’s what the sales would suggest.

Unless D&D stops making money or its popularity starts to wane dramatically, 5th edition is here to stay. But who knows? Maybe ‘5.5’ will be announced in time for the 50th anniversary in 2024. D&D: Gold Edition?

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How to Run a ‘Big Bad’

Wizards of the Coast

At some point in your D&D game, the party is going to come up against a villain of serious stature: a major enemy who has played a key role in the story so far and needs to be taken down.

In this article, we’re going to look at how to create a compelling and memorable villain who is also fun to play. For these purposes, the term ‘Big Bad’ refers to any major villain, not just the ultimate villain of the campaign. That said, most of the advice herein would apply just as well to a final villain, too.

Let’s start with the story side of things for the moment. How do we create a unique antagonist who will hold the players’ interest over the long term?

Memorable villains

An antagonist is fundamentally an opponent or obstacle for the players. All stories have a conflict somewhere, and at some point, the heroes have to face their enemy.

This, of course, is an incredibly reductive approach, and rather mechanical. An effective antagonist should be more than just a bump in the road. After the player characters, they are some of the most important figures in your campaign.

Wizards of the Coast

A villain can be every bit as complex and rounded as the heroes. Like the heroes, they have goals, flaws, internal conflicts. They can grow and change. They make choices under pressure. Much of what makes a good player character can be applied to a good villain. What drives them? What makes them evil (or not)? How have they changed over time, and how will they continue to change? What is their deepest flaw, and what is their one redeeming quality?

It’s also worth thinking about your villain as a leader. Why do others follow them? In game terms, does your villain have a high Intelligence, Charisma, or both? Where does their power come from? Of course, some villains are so powerful that they don’t need allies and underlings. If this is the case, why have they not acted until now?

Consider how you plan to humanize your villain. Some of the best villains are effective because we can understand their pain in human terms. Anakin Skywalker turns to the dark side to try and save his wife from death. Sméagol is corrupted by the One Ring. Sephiroth loses his mind when he discovers his true origins. Some villains, however, are frightening precisely because of their inhumanity. Regan in The Exorcist, Hannibal Lector, Voldemort, HAL 9000, the Joker: these villains are malevolent becomes they are wrong somehow. They seem human, but aren’t quite, and this just makes them all the more frightening and malign.

Consider, too, how you plan to introduce your villain. There are different schools of thought here. Some stories prefer to ‘trail’ their villains and introduce them gradually through henchmen and hints, whereas in other works the villain is a presence from the very beginning. You can also, of course, do both: you don’t have to limit yourself to just one villain! Star Wars (1977) introduces us to Vader within the first five minutes, but we don’t meet Palpatine until well into Episode V.

On that subject: don’t feel you necessarily have to commit yourself to a single ultimate ‘bad guy’ from the start of the campaign. As I wrote in Planning a Campaign Story, mapping out a whole storyline is a huge challenge, and takes away from the collaboration and unpredictability that make RPGs fun. If you introduce the main villain of the campaign in the very first session, you’re going to struggle to maintain interest in that character for 100+ hours of play. You may instead want to come up with two or three loose concepts, see which ones your players gravitate towards, and go from there. In fact, you may want to hold off introducing a main villain at all until the end of Tier 1 (4th level). Let the characters get established first.

Wizards of the Coast

Finally, don’t fear tropes. As Salvador Dalí may or may not have said, ‘Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.’ We have to start somewhere. There’s nothing wrong with taking an existing character in tweaking them slightly. Strahd von Zarovich is essentially Dracula, yet, in the final print issue of Dragon magazine, he was ranked the greatest D&D villain of all time, surpassing Lolth, Vecna, and Tiamat. If you want to make your villain feel different, switch the gender, subvert a trope, or take two or more villains and ‘kitbash’ them together somehow. (Incidentally, this approach works well for campaign settings, too. Take samurai and World War 2, put them in space: Star Wars. Take Diablo and Mad Max, and you basically have Borderlands.)

In summary, then:

  • Round out your villains with goals, flaws, and internal conflicts.
  • Consider what makes them a leader.
  • Humanize (or dehumanize) your villain.
  • Introduce the villain gradually.
  • Don’t commit to a single villain.
  • Steal liberally.

Of course, though, it’s all well and good having a good character, but what about the stat block? You don’t want your showdown with the villain to be a disappointed. So, from a more gamist perspective, how do you make these boss fights memorable?

Memorable showdowns

Sly Flourish (aka Mike Shea) has some excellent advice on boss fights in 5e. Rather than plagiarize it, you can his thoughts here. I also highly recommend Keith Amman over at The Monsters Know What They’re Doing, not only for his write-ups on the creatures in the Monster Manual, but also for his tips on how to apply his approach to the boss fights in the hardback published adventures. Lots to be learned here.

Wizards of the Coast

To this great advice, I would add my own:

  • Give the party a taste of the villain’s power while the characters are still low level. If Strahd throws a 5th-level fireball at the party when they’re still Tier 1 . . . the party is going to remember that.
  • Don’t worry too much about challenge rating, but have a contigency plan in case the fight is too easy or difficult. Damage per round is the single biggest indicator as to whether or not you’re going to kill the party.
  • If in doubt, err on the side of a fight being too difficult. This is one situation where it is better for the enemy to seem unstoppable than too easy.
  • Don’t overuse boss fights. They should feel special.
  • Consider giving your party the benefits of a long rest for free. Players want to be able to use everything they’ve got in a situation like this, and if the fight is a hard one, they’ll need all the resources available to them.
  • Steal the ‘mythic encounters’ mechanic from Mythic Odysseys of Theros. Essentially, once the enemy gets to zero hit points, a ‘mythic trait’ is activated, and the enemy returns to full hit points but with new options available. In game terms, it’s the equivalent of fighting two creatures with the same CR one after another.
  • Think about the Plan B, whether it’s parley, minions, an escape route, eternal undeath . . . a good villain can come back, for sure.
  • Most intelligent mortals will not fight to the death unless they’re desperate or fanatical.
  • Don’t bother making new stat blocks. Reskin existing ones. Make your villain a nastier special if you like, especially if you have players who sneak a peek at the Monster Manual during the game!
  • If they don’t have it already, give your villain legendary resistance and legendary actions. A party of four or more adventurers has a significant advantage thanks to the action economy, and a boss needs a little extra to give them a fighting chance.
  • Give your villain a powerful magic item, and make sure the players see it getting some use. When the heroes win, that item is going to be a piece of loot they remember.

Boss fights are definitely a good opportunity to crack out the battlefield terrain options, too. Make sure there is plenty of space available. As a rough rule of thumb, count how many spaces you need for all combatants and square it: that’s roughly how many spaces your battlefield needs to be. For example, if there are five medium-sized player characters, each taking up one space, and one huge enemy taking up nine spaces (15 ft by 15 ft), you probably want a large battlefield with around 196 spaces: (5 + 9)². That could be a 70-ft square, a 35-by-140-ft chamber, or something more complex. It won’t be a disaster if the battlefield is smaller than that, of course, but it will give the occasion a sense of importance if it takes a place in a space with real scale to it.

Villains can be hard to run. Managed properly, though, they can be some of the most exciting and memorable encounters in the campaign.

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Evil D&D

Troika Games/Atari

Warning: this post mentions topics that some may find disturbing or upsetting.

Chapter 3 of the Player’s Handbook (‘Classes’) begins like this:

‘Adventurers are extraordinary people, driven by a thirst for excitement into a life that others would never dare lead. They are heroes, compelled to explore the dark places of the world and take on the challenges that – ’

Hang on: heroes? Who said anything about heroes?

Defining evil

The term ‘evil’ will mean different things to different people. For some people, evil is an absolute, supernatural, even eternal force which stands in binary opposition to good. For other people, there may be evil acts, but the existence of evil people is a matter of debate. Some other people find the whole concept of evil unhelpful and find it more useful to see personal evil as a product of unbalanced behaviour: selfishness, ignorance, hatred, anger, and so on, but not necessarily an innate wickedness.

To some extent, the definition of ‘evil’ in your D&D games is likely to be shaped by your own moral beliefs. Gary Gygax was a devout Christian. Contrary to what the moral panic of the 1980s might have had us believe, his world was one of righteous paladins and chaotic evil demons: a world where moral alignment mattered. But in some settings, good and evil are less black and white and more shades of grey. In Eberron, for example, which was heavily influenced by film noir, good people can do evil things and vice versa.

Wizards of the Coast

The Book of Vile Darkness, an accessory by Monte Cook for 3rd-edition D&D, devotes the entire first chapter to ‘the nature of evil’ and provides a list of ‘evil acts’:

  • lying
  • cheating
  • betrayal
  • murder
  • vengeance
  • worshiping evil gods and demons
  • animating the dead or creating undead
  • casting evil spells
  • damning or harming souls
  • consorting with fiends
  • creating evil creatures
  • using others for personal gain
  • greed
  • bullying and cowing innocents
  • bringing despair
  • tempting others

That’s a long list! And yet, how many of them are exclusively evil? I can think of many player characters who have lied, cheated, bullied, sought vengeance, or succumbed to greed. Their behavior was hardly righteous, but was it evil? Context and intent are everything.

Ultimately, how you define evil is something for your table to discuss as a group (more on this later). A question to think about is, what is the difference between being evil and being not good (ie, neutral)? Neutral characters don’t make personal sacrifices to help others, but that doesn’t make them evil. D&D defines evil as hurting, oppressing, and killing others. As a corollary to this, I think it can be argued that evil characters are also fundamentally self-interested: either because they ambitiously pursue personal power (like Magneto and Emperor Palpatine) or because they follow their own lust and greed in a completely hedonistic sense (like the Joker). Self-sacrificing and altruistic they ain’t.

Putting this question to one side for the moment, how and why would you run an evil D&D game – and should you?

Playing an evil campaign

Wizards of the Coast

If you’re playing with a party of evil characters, there are two important obstacles to overcome.

The first is sensitivity. If you are set on running an evil campaign, you probably want to agree some ground rules about ‘how evil’ you want to go. In some way or another, everyone will have encountered evil in storytelling already, whether it’s Satan, Darth Vader, Lord Voldemort, or the Sheriff of Nottingham. But there are many kinds of evil that are difficult for people to talk about, or even taboo. Cannibalism, sadism, torture, abuse: these can be extremely uncomfortable subjects for people to engage with, and they shouldn’t have to if they don’t want to.

No kind of improvisation is 100-percent safe, but, as a bare minimum, run a session zero, even if you all know each other well. (Frankly, a session zerio is a good idea for lots of reasons, but this is certainly one of them.) Give players the space to discuss how far they want to go. You might want to talk about your campaign as if it had a film rating: ‘is this PG, mature, or adult?’ Some gamers talk about lines and veils, terms coined by Ron Edwards: lines are hard limits on content, meaning these things won’t show up in the game at all, whereas veils are soft limits, things that might get alluded to or implied but will never be directly described (in the same way that a film might ‘fade to black’). Lines and veils are helpful but not perfect: until it comes up, people don’t necessarily know they will find something uncomfortable. So, you may also want to employ John Stavropoulos’ X-Card approach. Give players the chance to pause, rewind, or fast forward a scene that they are not OK with.

The second problem with an evil campaign is the group dynamic. D&D assumes that you and your friends are working as a team. It’s right there in the introduction of the Player’s Handbook: ‘In the Dungeons & Dragons game, each player creates an adventurer (also called a character) and teams up with other adventurers (played by friends).’ Evil characters, however, have a tendency to be self-serving. They don’t make sacrifices for other people. They are not, on the whole, altruistic, benevolent, humane, or compassionate. They don’t care very much whether anyone else is hurt or hindered by their actions. In a team game, this matters.

How do we get around this? One option is to only allow characters who are lawful evil. This is the approach taken by the Adventurers League, and even then you can only play LE if you are part of a faction like the Zhentarim or the Lords’ Alliance. Lawful evil characters are still self-serving, but they at least have a semblance of honour or ‘play by the rules’. But what if your group wants to play characters who are neutral evil or even chaotic evil?

Well, there are two considerations. Firstly, while evil characters are generally self-serving, they aren’t necessarily stupid. If five evil characters are trying to steal a dragon’s hoard, basic game theory suggests that they are better off working together, and even once the dragon is defeated, it is still in the interests of individual characters to split things fairly as to do otherwise would jeopardize their future chances of commerical gain. In short: if you try to screw over your teammates, they will do the same to you. It’s not a good long-term strategy really.

Secondly, evil doesn’t have to be absolute. Neither do good, law, chaos, and neutrality, come to that. Alignment is a tool for defining a character’s identity. There’s no need to be fundamentalist about it: very, very few human beings are truly consistent, and no one said it had to a straitjacket. In fact, some of the most interesting characters in fiction are also some of most nuanced. Cersei Lannister will do anything to protect her children. Albus Dumbledore is kind but also manipulative and arrogant. Gregory House is selfish, a liar, and a consumate jerk, yet he is genuinely committed to his patients throughout the series. Just as ‘good’ heroes have flaws, good villains have redeeming qualities. And characters can grow over time, of course (and should).

So yes, you can play an evil campaign, provided it is handled sensitively. But the question remains: why would you?

Why evil

Wizards of the Coast

Now we get into pop psychology.

Tabletop roleplaying games are a form of escapism. They offer us a freedom many of us wish we had. The more we play D&D, the more powerful our characters become. Not only that, but the game actively encourages us to amass wealth and defeat enemies in combat. Is it any wonder that we are tempted to play evil characters? There’s a reason the murderhobo archetype is so prevalent.

An evil character can be intensely liberating, but perhaps there is a deeper reason as to why we are drawn towards murky morality. Jung believed we needed to confront our ‘shadow selves’ in order to grow as human beings. Freud wrote about the id, our most basic desires: our biological instinct to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Doing the right thing all the time is hard. Sometimes, it’s easier – and more fun – just to do whatever you want. Everyone wants to unleash their inner Hyde once in a while.

An evil D&D game, then, can be extremely fun, either as a one-shot or even as a full campaign. But it’s not for everyone. And that’s OK.

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Modding D&D

Wizards of the Coast

5th edition might be the most popular version of D&D ever. Compared to most of the editions that came before it, its mechanics are streamlined and simple: instead of totting up micro bonuses here and there on our character sheets, we now have the elegance of a single proficiency bonus. The advantage/disadvantage mechanic is intuitive and easy to use. Feats are optional, combat grids are optional, and concentration helps to reduce the number of magical effects in play, as does magic item attunement. It’s not for everyone, but, for many D&D fans, 5e was a huge improvement over 4th edition and felt like a return to a much more classic, story-driven game, like 2nd-edition AD&D. Its simplified rules go some way to explaining why it is the ruleset of choice for the most popular streams on Twitch and YouTube.

In short: 5th edition gets an awful lot right. But it is not perfect.

Fortunately, though, it’s easy enough to customize D&D to your own tastes. Indeed, the Dungeon Master’s Guide even encourages us to do so, devoting an entire chapter to optional rules, as well as guidelines for how to create our own material.

The scope here is huge, so, in this article, I have limited myself to five areas of the game which are ripe for tweaking. As always, though, your mileage may vary: it’s your game, no one else’s, so try these out – or don’t!

The ranger

Wizards of the Coast

The problem: the ranger is the most underpowered class in 5th edition. Probably.

Thanks to Aragorn, Drizzt Do’Urden, and Robin Hood, rangers are a popular character archetype. In fact, according to analysis a few years ago on FiveThirtyEight, rangers were the sixth most popular character on D&D Beyond, right after the iconic four (cleric, fighter, rogue, wizard) and the barbarian. They should be full of flavour and awesome to play: wanderers and hunters, at home in the wilds, stealthy and rugged yet also capable in combat and able to use nature magic . . .

And yet: the ranger presented in the Player’s Handbook feels decidedly lacklustre. Where paladins get divine smite and rogues get sneak attack, rangers get, what: favoured enemy? Natural explorer? Primeval awareness?

The Beast Master, though, is worst of all. Painfully, your animal companion has to be directed with an action to do anything more useful than Dodge. Its hit point total is limited to four times your ranger level (or the beast’s default hit points), and you can’t pick anything more powerful than a CR ¼ beast: no lions or tigers, or bears. Oh my. Compare this to the abilities of pretty much any other subclass and weep.

The fix: The Ranger, Revised. Clearly even Wizards of the Coast felt something was up as they have offered not one but two redesigns for the class, one in 2015 and another a year later. The 2016 article does much to fix what’s wrong with the class in the Player’s Handbook. It’s not perfect – some people now feel that it might even be overpowered – but in many campaigns, it will be more fun to play. It remains unofficial, however, and can’t be used in Organized Play.

(As an aside, Wizards released an Unearthed Arcana article in November with an extensive range of variant class features. It’s quite possible that a new supplement is in the works – something a bit like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything – and the ranger will be revised yet again. Watch this space.)

Race

Wizards of the Coast

The problem: race is problematic and restrictive.

The concept of race in roleplaying games has been controversial for some time now, and for many reasons. The latest edition of Pathfinder, released last August, removed the term ‘race’ entirely and now uses ‘ancestry’ instead. In June this year, in the wake of the George Floyd protests and a renewed focus on the Black Lives Matter movement, Wizards of the Coast announced that they would be taking steps to address racist stereotypes in D&D. The issue is not just the term ‘race’ itself and the problematic presentation of some ‘monstrous’ peoples – orcs and drow, in particular – but the whole concept of biological determinism.

In the introduction to Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e, Eugene Marshall argues:

First of all, scientists and philosophers who study race reject the concept of race as a biological fact that discretely individuates groups of people. Race is not a biological reality; rather, it is a social concept constructed and employed differently at different times in history and in different places in the world. It is not like eye colour, but like citizenship: something that is based in social relations and concepts, not biology.

In other words, the concept of race as it has been used from at least the Enlightenment forward to the twentieth century is, frankly, bankrupt. This is not to say there is no such thing as ancestry, heritage, and genetic difference, of course. Indeed, our genetics are real, but they are a function of our individual ancestry, not our race. What folks call racial differences simply do not map cleanly onto anything in our biology as simplistic as the concept of race. What’s more, that concept in the real world has been used to justify historic atrocities. Indeed, racists still use these bogus, faux-scientific justifications to support their prejudice. Because these harmful concepts have no place in our world, they need not be in the stories we tell with our friends either.

I highly recommend reading the introduction in its entirety.

There is also, of course, a more gamist justification for rethinking race in D&D. By giving races ‘baked in’ ability score increases, we end up (inadvertently) reducing the range of characters that are fun to play. Sure, you could play a dwarven wizard . . . but would a gnome (+2 Intelligence) not be more ‘optimal’? You could play a halfling barbarian (no Strength bonus, no heavy weapon proficiency) . . . but would a half-orc not be more fun? And from a storytelling perspective, D&D races can quickly seem a bit stale if they end up getting pigeonholed into the same stereotypical roles, time after time.

The fix: one option, of course, is Ancestry & Culture, as mentioned above. You could go even further, though, and remove racial ability modifiers entirely. This is the approach taken by GabeJonesGames in their excellent pay-what-you-want Class Modifier Module, where ability scores at 1st level are based on class, not race. Wizards of the Coast themselves have hinted that this will be an option in a future product, due to be released later this year but as yet unannounced.

Arms and equipment

Wizards of the Coast

The problem: there are limited ways to upgrade their equipment in 5e, and characters end up with lots of gold and nothing to spend it on.

OK, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with arms and armour in 5e D&D. Sure, it’s an ahistorical mishmash of the Renaissance (rapiers) and the medieval (chainmail), and studded leather is a silly concept (Gygax was maybe thinking of brigandine), but for most groups, it’s fine.

However: wouldn’t it be fun if you could upgrade your armour and weaponry somehow? This is one of the things I love about video games like Tomb Raider, Call of Duty, and The Last of Us. It’s fun to make decisions about where you spend your money and watch your rudimentary equipment improve over time. It’s almost like your equipment levels up with you.

The fix: The Complete Armorer’s Handbook. I cannot recommend this enough. It offers excellent mechanics for upgrading your equipment overtime, and the revised armour table feels like it should be the new standard for D&D. My group loves it.

Death saves

The problem: dying in combat is mechanically boring.

When you get knocked out in 5e, you could end up spending the next five turns rolling death saves. That 50/50 roll is all you can do. It’s essentially a coin-flip. It’s better than some of the systems in previous editions – I like the fact that a 20 puts you back on one hit point but a 1 counts as two failures – but it’s not interesting mechanically or narratively. Rather than being climactic or harrowing, it tends to lead to players getting frustrated or zoning out, and who can blame them?

The fix: Death Saves Revived. ThinkDM published this last week, and it’s such a neat little tweak. By making each death save meaningful, it gives players the chance to keep telling the story and recreates the feel of slipping in and out of consciousness.

Heroic resolve

Wizards of the Coast

The problem: 5e has some nasty condition effects which remove player agency.

As DMs, it can be easy to forget that the players only have one character each. If a character is stunned, frightened, charmed, or paralysed, that player is going to be locked out of the action: potentially, for some time.

The fix: Heroic Resolve. This is a simple house rule from Sly Flourish which presents players with a choice: put up with the effect and make a save as normal, or fight through it and lose hit points instead (1d6 psychic damage per CR). As Sly Flourish points out, taking away character agency is almost sure to be a bad time for the player, and as DMs, we should be fans of the characters, not their adversaries.

Which of these rules would you use in your game?

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The Perfect D&D Party

Wizards of the Coast

D&D has always worked on the assumption that adventurers work together as a group. Which group, then, works best? With at least twelve character classes to choose from, and a gamut of subclasses, it’s not a straightforward question. This article aims to approach the question from two angles: one narrativist, one gamist.

Before that, though, a full disclaimer: there is, of course, no such thing as a perfect D&D party. It’s perfectly possible to play in a party that isn’t particularly ‘optimized’ and still enjoy it. Similarly, a perfectly balanced party is a rather Pyrrhic victory if everyone is miserable with the character they’ve ended up with.

Fortunately, 5th edition is fairly forgiving when it comes to party composition: if your group is lacking in one area, it will probably make up for it somewhere else, especially if the number of players is reasonably large. There are stories online about parties composed entirely of bards, and that sounds hilarious. So, rock out. If in doubt, play what you want to play.

The gamist approach

Wizards of the Coast

From a gameplay perspective, party composition is about ensuring versatility and power. In other words, a balanced party can respond effectively to a range of different situations. They have all bases covered: they can take hits, dish ’em out, avoid threats through stealth and subterfuge, gather intel, charm NPCs . . . the list goes on. An optimized party can take on ever greater challenges, which in turn can feel more fulfilling (‘woah, did we just kill a red dragon at 4th level?’). Conversely, a suboptimal party can find themselves coming up against the same difficulties over and over again, and this can start to get frustrating in the long run (‘why do we all keep failing our Dex saves?’).

If you’re striving for versatility and power, two things really matter: one is working together as a group, and the other is knowing your role. This might seem obvious, but every group is different, and some players are naturally better at this than others.

For a group to be at its most effective, players need to talk to each other. Are you proficient in a range of skills, tools, and languages? Do you have access to spells like detect magic and cure wounds? If you do have gaps, do you have a way around them? A group can survive without thieves’ tools if it has access to spells like knock and shield or levitate, say. But it can be a risky strategy.

As for roles, this is where things can get a bit more contentious. In 4th edition, every class was designed to fit one of four functions: striker, controller, leader, and defender (roughly analogous to rogue, wizard, cleric, and fighter, respectively). D&D faced criticism at the time for trying too much to be like a video game. (These roles map over quite neatly onto familiar online gaming terms like ‘tank’, ‘DPS’, ‘buffer’, and so on.) 5th edition is less straitjacketed. Thus, a bard can be a supporter (like a traditional cleric) or a spellslinger (like a wizard). A ranger can be melee skirmisher or a ranger marksman. A Circle of the Moon druid can fight on the front line like a paladin. But some classes are less flexible than others.

At this point, I must recommend Keith Ammann’s book, Live to Tell the Tale (not to mention his fantastic blog, themonstersknow.com). Ammann breaks down each class based on its ‘ability score contour’ and unpicks why certain classes lend themselves to particular combat roles as a result. Buy his book. I’m not going to plagiarize it. What I will say, though, is this: you will probably want at least one ranged attacker and at least two front-line fighters (and that doesn’t necessarily mean the fighter class). Beyond that, there’s room for flexibility, but I will let Mr Ammann go into more detail on this.

So far, this has looked at party composition exclusively from a gameplay perspective approach. What about the story?

The narrativist approach

New Line Cinema

It’s all well and good having a balanced group of carefully optimized characters, but what is their reason for adventuring together, and how do they fit in with the story?

Here again, knowing your role helps. What links your character to the rest of the group, and what sets them apart? Think about your favourite ensembles from film and TV, whether it’s The A-Team, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek, or the original heroes of Star Wars. These groups work because the characters are distinct yet still complement each other.

Party composition isn’t just about power and versatility: it’s about making your own individual character more enjoyable to play. From a gamist perspective, you will feel more powerful and more useful if you have a key role in the team: no one to compete with, no one to overshadow you at what you do. From a narrativist perspective, the same is true. By thinking about how your character is distinct yet part of a team, you help to carve out a place for yourself in the story. A character who is not distinctive can end up blending into the background, getting forgotten. Conversely, a character with nothing to link them to the rest of the group can end up seeming incongrous or eccentric, and they may potentially be less plausible or even less likeable as a consequence.

TV Tropes has an excellent page that compiles some of the common ways that writers in various media have chosen to manage character ensembles. For example, with a group of four players, you could agree to loosely base your characters on the four elements, the four humours, or just four different philosophies (cynic, optimist, realist, conflicted/apathetic). For a party of three, you could have a Freudian trio of id, ego, and super-ego, or a knight, knave, and squire combination. For five, you could adapt the five-man band. Adapt is the key word here. Tropes are tools, and if you don’t like them, they can be subverted or simply averted.

To further enrich your story, it can be fun to think of a group concept. Why are you travelling together? What is your history? What are your goals? You can, of course, allow this to emerge over play, but it can also be fun to give this some thought as part of your session zero. The 5th-edition Eberron sourcebook, Rising from the Last War, introduces the concept of group patrons, many of which would work perfectly well in other worlds. In my friend’s Dragon Heist campaign, for example, we created our group in the image of a criminal gang, with a burglar, a talker, a safecracker, and so on, and it has meant that we have all had a part to play from the outset. On the other hand, many players prefer to stick to the cliché of ‘we all met in a tavern’, and you know what? This has its place. You do you.

A perfect party?

Wizards of the Coast

There is, again, no such thing as a perfect party. But, as a thought exercise, what would well from both a gamist and a narrativist perspective?

For what it’s worth, this is my suggestion:

This is a fairly typical five-man band (not that any of the characters have to be male, of course). The paladin-sorcerer is the hero or leader, and the thief acts as the hero’s foil (or ‘lancer’). The cleric, being a healer, is the ‘heart’ of the group, and the totem warrior and illusionist fill out the final spots as ‘big guy’ and ‘smart guy’ respectively.

Naturally, there’s plenty of room for variation here. A bard could replace the illusionist or the cleric. The big guy could be a heavily armoured fighter, and the lancer could be a rugged ranger. For a sixth character, you could maybe add a drow or tiefling warlock. For a four-person group, you could maybe drop the illusionist and turn the half-elf into a single-class sorcerer.

It bears repeating, though: 5th edition is flexible, and many combinations are fun. Talk as a group, know your role, and have fun.