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!

To subscribe, click here. You can unsubscribe any time. You can find me on Facebook at scrollforinitiative, Twitter at scrollforinit, and Instagram at scrollforinitiative.

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.

To subscribe, click here. You can unsubscribe any time. You can find me on Facebook at scrollforinitiative, Twitter at scrollforinit, and Instagram at scrollforinitiative.

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?

To subscribe, click here. You can unsubscribe any time. You can find me on Facebook at scrollforinitiative, Twitter at scrollforinit, and Instagram at scrollforinitiative.

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.

To subscribe, click here. You can unsubscribe any time. You can find me on Facebook at scrollforinitiative, Twitter at scrollforinit, and Instagram at scrollforinitiative.

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.

To subscribe, click here. You can unsubscribe any time. You can find me on Facebook at scrollforinitiative, Twitter at scrollforinit, and Instagram at scrollforinitiative.

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?

To subscribe, click here. You can unsubscribe any time. You can find me on Facebook at scrollforinitiative, Twitter at scrollforinit, and Instagram at scrollforinitiative.

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.

Creating Awesome Characters

Wizards of the Coast

How do you go about creating a character in D&D?

Most of us follow the step-by-step approach in Chapter 1 of the Player’s Handbook. We roll stats, we choose a class, a race, and a background, and we pick out equipment and spells. We might shake up the order a bit, but I imagine this is where most of us start.

What if someone told you that none of this really mattered that much?

In praise of human fighters

In fantasy fiction, there is no character more common than a human fighter.

In A Song of Ice and Fire, Jaime Lannister is a human fighter. So is the Hound. So is Oberyn Martell. Boromir is a human fighter in The Lord of the Rings. So is Aragorn. So is Éowyn. They are all fantastic characters, but in D&D terms, they are the same class and race. Not only that, but they are probably the most ‘vanilla’ race and class in the game. Being a human fighter doesn’t have to be boring.

via Twitter (@DMEducational)

In the same vein, unusual race-class combinations don’t make your character interesting. Or rather, they don’t necessarily make your character interesting. Plenty of great fantasy characters would have had an unusual race or class if they had existed in D&D. Smaug, Treebeard, and Gollum are definitely not human fighters, and they’re great: but it’s not being a dragon, ent treant, or a skinny, grey fish-chomper that makes them memorable or special. If the only interesting thing about your barbarian is the fact that he or she is a gnome . . . well, that’s probably not going to be interesting forever.

(It’s the same reason why I’m sceptical about the ever expanding list of playable races in 5e D&D. As of writing, we now have elephant-people, lion-people, cat-people, hyena-people, snake-people, fish-people, two kinds of birdpeople, and seven kinds of elf: yeesh. Your world isn’t more interesting just because it looks like a Mos Eisley cantina. In fact, I would go even further: the less human your character is, the less real they seem, the less we empathize with them, and, ultimately, the less we care about what happens them.)

From a mechanical standpoint, race, class, equipment, spells etc can all make a character interesting to play. But from a roleplaying perspective, you need something more.

It’s the difference between character and characterization.

Choices under pressure

What’s the most important part of your character sheet? Your ability scores? Skill proficiencies? Inventory? Spell list? Hit points?

I would argue that it’s this bit, here:

It’s a section many of us don’t think about too much, tucked away in a corner of the character sheet somewhere. It’s often an afterthought: we pick a few ideas from the background tables in the Player’s Handbook or roll it randomly, but it’s not very important to us. Some players don’t even fill it in at all, and never plan to.

In D&D, I think of race, class, equipment and so on as characterization: attributes. And that’s just for starters. You could also add stuff like backstory, appearance, height and weight, age, family, friends. Don’t get me wrong: this stuff matters enormously. When you introduce someone for the first time, this is the stuff you tend to lead with in your description of them. But it’s still not character.

Robert McKee is an author and lecturer. His students include Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, Finding Nemo), Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby), and Peter Jackson (yes, that one). He calls character this: the choices we make under pressure. Fiction is driven by conflict, and it’s when we push our characters into difficult situations that we really start to know who they are. What motivates them? What are their values? What are their dreams? What are they most afraid of? What will they kill for? Who will they die for? Without these internal conflicts, our characters are a detailed description, but flat, hollow. It is not until we reveal their deepest internal conflicts that we start to breathe life into our characters.

This is something that Fate Core really appreciates. In Fate, when you make a character, you define their ‘high concept’ first and their ‘trouble’ second, and your trouble should be something that complicates your character’s existence in a significant, meaningful way: a dark impulse, a problematic relationship, a temptation, a personal struggle. To some extent, the ‘trouble’ in D&D is externalized (‘whatever the DM throws at us’) or randomized (‘my low Dexterity makes me clumsy and slow’), but is that enough on its own? If you want your character to be engaging, convincing, developed, and unique, start with the internal conflict.

This article is already getting a bit long, so I will keep the next bit short.

Tips and tricks

  • Work with your DM. Tie your character’s story to the game world.
  • Move away from the random tables in the Player’s Handbook, brilliant though they are. See what you can come up with yourself.
  • Your flaw should be an actual problem. This isnt like the platitudes we spout in job interviews (‘I work too hard! I’m just too kind!’). Every character has a darkness in their soul, so what’s yours?
  • Turn off the gamist part of your brain for a moment and think about your character as a living, breathing human being (yes, even if they are kenku sorcerer or what have you). Whether they’re aliens, robots, dragons, or talking animals, we interpret all characters through a human lens.
  • If you’re stuck, start with alignment and ask this: ‘if this is my character 90 percent of the time, what would tempt them away from it?’ Is your Lawful Good paladin tempted by ambition (Macbeth)? Will your Neutral Evil queen do anything to protect her children (Cersei Lannister)?
  • There is no shame in stealing ideas from film, TV, books, and video games. I particularly like Game of Thrones for this, as it has a huge cast of rich, complex characters.
  • None of this means anything if you see it as a finished product. A good character will grow and change: a bad character will stay the same.
  • Despite everything above: maybe you don’t care that much about the story of the game. That’s OK. But if so, think about your role in the team. If you see D&D as a game first and a story second, maybe you should play a character who is tactically interesting but won’t hog the spotlight as the leader or party face.

What really matters

At the start of this article, I suggested that race, class, background and so forth don’t really matter that much. It was meant provocatively, of course. D&D is a fantasy roleplaying game, and from a gamist perspective, these decisions matter a great deal. However: if you’re interested not just in playing a great game but in telling great stories, then characters matter, and great characters are more than a cool race-class combination.

Planning a Campaign Story

Wizards of the Coast

When planning a game of Dungeons & Dragons, a DM has to consider the short term, the mid term, and the long term.

In our context, ‘short term’ means encounters: short scenes based around combat, exploration, or social interaction. ‘Mid term’ would be an adventure: a series of encounters linked together. ‘Long term’, then, depending on your scope, is either a story arc or a campaign.

Planning a campaign from 1st level to 20th is not an easy undertaking. Tellingly, since 5th edition began, Wizards of the Coast have only published one complete adventure of this length, and that’s the Tyranny of Dragons storyline. (I suppose you could make a case for Dragon Heist and Mad Mage, too, but they don’t really form a connected ‘arc’ in the same way.) Mapping out a whole storyline over 100+ hours of play is a challenge. Before we move on, it’s worth considering why this is, and whether we should approach roleplaying games differently to other forms of storytelling.

Roleplaying games as a form

Roleplaying games are not just a ‘genre’ of fiction: they are a distinct form. And if we reflect on what makes this form unique, we start to appreciate why it is so difficult to plan a roleplaying game over the long term.

Two things make roleplaying games unusual.

Firstly, they are collaborative. A DM doesn’t play the game on their own: the players create the narrative, too. It is a shared story.

Secondly, they are unpredictable. No other form of storytelling relies on dice rolls and random chance to determine where it is going next.

The problem with planning a D&D campaign over the long term is that it overlooks these two fundamentals. Collaboration and unpredictability make RPGs fun. Without collaboration and unpredictability, you essentially have a railroad, with the DM pushing the players through their own pre-written narrative. That might be fun for some people, but it rather misses the point of what a roleplaying game sets out to do. It owes more to novel-writing than shared storytelling, and ultimately robs the players of their freedom to choose, which isn’t very fun.

At the same time, a series of disconnected adventures can start to feel a bit purposeless. If you care at all about the story of your game (and some players don’t, and that’s cool), then you probably want to see causality: ‘this happened because this happened.’ You probably want to see change, conflict. You want to see character growth. How does that happen in a game of D&D if there’s no long-term plan?

‘Don’t prep plots’

Wizards of the Coast

One of the best essay series I have read about RPGs is ‘Don’t Prep Plots’ by Justin Alexander. Sly Flourish has recently written a similar post on ‘Building Situations in D&D’ and the idea of letting go of defined encounters. Both posts are well worth reading in their entirety, but the central thrust is this: a D&D game is better off with a looser approach to planning.

To play D&D is to improvise, and if you’re the DM, you are probably going to do a good deal more improvisation than the players. Embrace this: don’t try to curtail it. If you go into a session thinking ‘the characters are going to do this, then this, then this’ then you are essentially going in with the intention of removing player agency. Stop. Much better to use the lazy approach from Sly Flourish: start strong, come up with a few key scenes and secrets, jot down a few encounter ideas and treasure parcels, then see where the players take you. It can be nerve-wracking at first, but the more you adapt to this approach, the more fun it is for the players and you.

However, this only really covers short- and mid-term planning. We’ve said that we want to see causality, conflict, change, character development. If we only plan one session at a time, how does that happen?

Emergent narratives

Even if you don’t plot a whole campaign, a story will emerge over time.

When you think about it, this is how stories work in real life (that is, in non-fiction). History isn’t plotted, but by looking at the past, we can trace how a series of interconnected triggers can lead to massive change. In fact, it is one of the great lessons of history that a seemingly random and unpredictable event can change everything that happens next, just like a fluky die roll in D&D. How many of us would have predicted in 2010 that, a decade later, Donald Trump would be US president, the UK would be leaving the EU, and a deadly coronavirus would be sending the whole planet into lockdown? These stories weren’t plotted: they emerged. And in 100 years time, they will be part of our human story, just like World War I and the industrial revolution and other complex historical events.

You don’t need a plotted narrative to have a fantastic D&D campaign. But there is one more trick I would recommend if you are looking for an overarching narrative in your games.

20 levels of story beats

Wizards of the Coast

I have written before about the concept of story beats: originally a concept in filmmaking but now increasingly relevant in RPGs, largely thanks to Robin D Laws. Beats are the transition points or building blocks of a narrative, and while you can’t necessarily plan a plot for your campaign, you can certainly think about its beats. In 5th edition D&D, story beats overlap fairly neatly with the transitions between tiers of play (DMG 36).

What follows is adapted from Blake Snyder’s ‘Save the Cat!’ beat sheet, but adjusted for D&D using the guidelines in the DMG for session-based advancement (p 261). That is to say, I am working on the basis that a typical group gets through the first few levels of play quite quickly, and thereafter spends two to three sessions between levels. Your mileage may vary.

Two disclaimers. Firstly, you might be tempted to use this as a fairly rigid structure. In doing so, you run the risk of railroading and all the problems that come with it. Forecast, don’t plan. Secondly, most campaigns don’t hit level 20, and that’s fine. In fact, many campaigns don’t get much past Tier 1. You could adjust this structure for a shorter campaign and it would work just as well.

So, here goes: a 20-level guide to planning a long-term campaign.

The beat sheet

1. Think of the game in terms of three acts: setup, rising action, climax. These correspond roughly to Tier 1, Tiers 2 and 3, and Tier 4.

2. The game begins at 1st level, but don’t feel pressured to start the story immediately. For the first few levels, let the players learn about each other’s characters: show them what the world is like before their adventures begin.

3. At some point towards the end of Tier 1 – I would suggest 4th level – introduce some kind of catalyst or inciting incident. Think of this as your ‘no going back’ moment: a call to adventure. Here again, take your time. Give your players a chance to ask: ‘now what?’ and mull over the next steps.

4. Think of ‘Act 2’ as starting around 6th level. This is where you can really start to expand your world and introduce new allies, enemies, and mentors. Most characters receive a significant power boost around this time, progressing from ‘local heroes’ to ‘heroes of the realm’. Try to end Tier 2 with some kind of midpoint. A false victory works well here: the players think things are going great, but they are actually about to get a whole lot worse.  

5. From Tier 3 onwards, the players are over half-way through the story. This is where the bad guys close in and the world starts to unravel. If there’s going to be a moment when the heroes hit rock bottom, save it for the end of Tier 3. As with the inciting incident in Tier 1, give the players a chance to react to this: a ‘dark night of the soul’, where all seems lost.    

6. Tier 4 is your finale. The heroes realize what they need to do and face their foes once and for all. The last four levels of the game focus entirely on the drama of the heroes’ final plan and the showdown with the antagonists.

In summary:

  • forecast, don’t plan;
  • embrace improvisation;
  • let the players lead you.

If nothing else, allow the narrative to emerge naturally. Like a good wine, a narrative needs to breathe, so let things take their time.

Pros and cons of online play

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many of us will have moved our D&D games online recently. Others have been playing online for a while, though, either because our friends have moved away or because modern life just makes online play easier than getting a group together in person.

Online play is not without its challenges, of course. That said, it can also bring with it certain advantages, and, done properly, it can be almost as fun as live play. In this article, I’m going to suggest some ways of making online play enjoyable and offer some reflections on the opportunities it brings.

Pros: technology

For some players, online play is the only way of making D&D happen. Over the last four years, I have played and DMed online with a group of ten other people (not all at once, of course), and it is only since January that we have all been playing regularly in the same time zone. (I think the record may have been six players in three different countries.)

Virtual tabletops (VTTs) have come on leaps and bounds in recent years. After an initial learning curve, we are now very happy with Fantasy Grounds as our platform of choice, although some of us have branched out to Roll20 on occasion and found it fairly intuitive. Fantasy Ground has the edge in terms of its ‘effects’ coding (more on this in a moment), but Roll20 benefits from built-in support for audio and video. Some of my friends have switched to Foundry, and I’ve also heard good things about Astral. Similarly, though, I have also played some really fun games with nothing but Skype, Discord, or Google Hangouts.

Once you know your way around Fantasy Grounds, you start to appreciate how much of the game can be automated. From Tier 2 onwards, D&D has the potential to become increasingly ‘tactically rich’ – ie, complicated – and even experienced players can start to overlook things. With a good VTT, more and more of the game can be left to run in the background. Conditions, spells, class features, magic item effects: with a bit of know-how, you can set these up to run in perpetuity, or even code in ‘triggers’ based on if-statements. It’s also nice to manage big dice rolls with a single click: no more waiting for the wizard to add up the eight d6s for fireball.

When I ran the finale of Tomb of Annihilation at the end of October – and if you haven’t been lucky enough to play it yet, let’s just say it happens around 10th level and there is a lot going on – two of the players joined me to play the session in person, and the other three joined us online. But here’s the thing: all six of us continued playing with Fantasy Grounds because it’s just such a useful tool at higher levels. The Avrae bot for Discord offers similar functionality, although, having started with Fantasy Grounds, we haven’t really needed to switch to something new (yet).

Playing online can also give you easy access to other technologies like virtual character sheets, searchable rulebooks, and evocative background music. Many of these tools can be employed equally effectively at the game table, of course, and you see many DMs doing exactly this in their liveplay videos on Twitch and YouTube.

Cons: technology

Make sure your IT is up to scratch

If technology is a boon, it can also be a curse. Connection difficulties, poor sound quality, slow internet speeds, unintuitive interfaces: these things can rapidly sap the fun out of online D&D, and need to be addressed preemptively, if possible.

I’m not knowledgeable enough about computer technology to start recommending webcams, microphones, ISPs, and so on. Every participant needs to test out their equipment ahead of time and find what works for them. It’s worth agreeing beforehand how you plan to handle connection issues: do you play on, pause for a few minutes, or ‘bubble’ the character until they return? It’s also worth pointing out that some players will have more luck with their phone camera than they will with their laptop’s built-in webcam. So, experiment: find the solutions that work for you. For example, we have one player in our group who cannot use Discord without his audio going haywire, for some reason. Hangouts and Roll20 work fine for him, though, so we just use that.

Playing online is also perilous because you are constantly surrounded by distractions. It can be hard to resist the temptation of emails, social media, and online shopping while you are waiting for your turn to come round. There are a number of ways to minimize this, however, as I explain below.

Tricks of the trade

For all the technological benefits a VTT can provide, online play can be slow. Really slow. It can take a while for players to click through their character sheets to the right section, and if you are playing with a grid, dragging tokens around on a map will never be as fast or as satistfying as moving miniatures across a table.

One solution: streamline the game. Yes, some players will balk at this, but at the end of the day, rule zero of D&D is having fun, and for some players, there comes a point where it’s worth sacrificing tactical depth for speed of play. Some suggestions, then:

  • Keep the group small (maybe three or four players);
  • Let players roll physical dice;
  • Switch to group initiative;
  • Tell players the AC of the enemies after one or two rounds;
  • Use static monster damage;
  • Abstract large encounters with the DMG mob rules;
  • Run more combat in theatre of the mind;
  • Fudge hit points where it satisfies the narrative;
  • Rule in the players’ favour where possible.

‘Theatre of the mind’ might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but in 5th edition, playing with a grid is technically optional. I recommend theatre of the mind for online play. Gridded combat has its place, particularly with complex boss battles, but it can definitely be dispensed with for most fights when playing online. Whether it’s more enjoyable to play without a grid is something for you and your group to discuss and decide upon.

Final thoughts

Wizards of the Coast

In this article, I’ve largely focused on the issues that are unique to online play. Many of the issues that affect online D&D are just as much of a problem offline, but they do tend to be amplified when playing over the internet. In closing, then, a few words of caution for players and DMs who want to move their game online:

Players: be ready on your turn. Learn how your character’s class features work. Save rules disputes until after the session. Listen to the DM. Try not to talk over other players. Don’t hog the spotlight (and if you don’t know who the spotlight hog is in your group: could it be you?).

DMs: relax. Be generous. Listen to the players. Try not to talk over other players. Don’t hog the spotlight. And read the room! This is so much hardler online, so consider an occasional survey to gauge how you’re getting on (I plan to do an entire article on this at some point).

The issues that come with online play are largely preventable, and, handled properly, a VTT can even enhance your game. Give it a try!