Four Problems with Fantasy (and How to Fix Them)

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

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

1. Tired tropes and chronic clichés

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

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

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

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

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

2. Prejudice and discrimination

Why Orcs Are Problematic in Dungeons & Dragons

Wizards of the Coast

Buckle up: this one’s controversial.

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

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

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

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

3. Combat fatigue

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

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

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

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

4. Characterization over character

via Twitter (@DMEducational)

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

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

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

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

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Fixing 4d6 drop lowest

How do you determine your character’s ability scores?

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

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

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

Probabilities

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

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

Rolling low

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

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

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

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

Wizards of the Coast

Rolling high

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

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

The problem

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

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

Solutions

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

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

Here’s my method:

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

That’s it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Epic D&D Christmas Gift Guide

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

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

Dice and related accessories

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

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

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

Stationery

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

Reddit (@rtakehara)

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

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

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

Miniatures

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

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

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

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

Game aids

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

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

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

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

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

Introductions to D&D

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

D&D rulebooks and supplements

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

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

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

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

Other RPGs

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

A list:

Books about roleplaying

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

Tech stuff

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

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

Commissions

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

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

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

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Is D&D art?

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

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

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

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

Defining ‘art’

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

Shakespeare’s Globe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why roleplaying games are not art

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog wallpaper in 1280x720 resolution | Island  wallpaper, Wallpaper, Nature wallpaper

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

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

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

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

Jackson Pollock | Biography & Facts | Britannica

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

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

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

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

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

Why does this matter?

Dungeons & Dragons | Stranger Things Wiki | Fandom

Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

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Rolling Stats

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

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

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

Preamble

4d6 drop lowest, free 18 - YouTube

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No good stats

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

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

One good stat

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

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

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

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

Dungeons & Dragons 5E rogue class explained | Dicebreaker

Wizrads of the Coast

Two good stats

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

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

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

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

Three good stats

Dungeons & Dragons: Best Monk Builds | Game Rant

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

Four or more good stats

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

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

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Tomb Raider in D&D

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

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

A few limitations

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

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

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

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

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

What are the solutions?

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

The world of Tomb Raider

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

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

Puzzles and exploration

Tomb of the Nine Gods | Forgotten Realms Wiki | Fandom

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

Combat

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

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

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

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

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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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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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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!

My D&D Story

I have my friend Clippy* to thank for my love of D&D.

Back in the late 90s, when both of us were still in primary school, he had an AD&D starter set called First Quest. His dad had picked it up from a local charity shop. It came with maps, dice, minis, character cards, streamlined rules, a DM screen, and even an audio CD (which you can listen to in all its glory here). I have some really fond memories of summer afternoons spent in Clippy’s conservatory, rolling dice, putting on funny voices, laughing at the cheesy backing tracks, cheering as we defeated the big bad guy. (Many years later, I found out that Clippy’s mum had originally told his dad not to buy First Quest because it was too expensive. How different our lives might have been if Clippy and I had never played it!)  

In autumn of 2001, I bought the Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Game. I remember it took weeks to arrive from America, and then one day I came home from school to find a bright orange box waiting for me. We played through it for weeks and weeks and advanced our characters to the dizzying heights of 3rd level. But that was the end of it. So: what next?

What was it about this game that got me so fired up? I had always loved writing, storytelling, board games, and fantasy: D&D was a perfect blend of all four. And sure, it was fun to play with plastic figures and put on silly voices (cough, it still is). But D&D is also more than this. Not only is it interactive and collaborative, it is also immersive, improvised, and – thanks to the dice rolls and the players sitting around you – completely unpredictable. When you put these things together, something magical happens, and there is no other creative form like it.   

That Christmas, my parents got me the core rulebooks: the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual. I spent the next few weeks poring over them. I rolled up my first characters, made sketches of them, drew maps, and tried to work out how to create stat blocks for my own monsters. It has to be emphasized: I didn’t read the books; I studied them. I would start reading straight after breakfast and wouldn’t put them down until last thing at night.      

It was time to build an adventuring party. Early in 2002, my brother and I invited some friends round (Clippy included, of course) and we started ‘the D&D group’. We would meet up on Sundays once every three weeks and play for six hours, with an hour for lunch in the middle. Looking back, I’m amazed we were able to concentrate for that long, although it probably helped that there would always be copious amounts of sweets and fizzy drinks. Clippy and I were the main DMs, at first, but my other friends soon had their turn at running campaigns, too. At first it was all homebrew, but over time we started to dip our toes into published campaign settings like the Forgotten Realms and Eberron, and later even Rokugan, d20 Modern, and Star Wars.

All this time it was pretty secretive. D&D was nowhere near as popular as it is today, and growing up in rural Lincolnshire, we didn’t even have access to decent game stores, sadly. In the UK, most nerds were focused on Warhammer and Games Workshop, and probably still are. I’m not sure there were any other D&D players at our school.

We carried on playing until we were 18. When we hit Sixth Form (the last two years of high school), we started playing weekly on Thursday nights. But towards the end, we probably weren’t taking the game as seriously as we once had. Other interests were taking over. We finished school, went to uni, started jobs, and over the next nine years, we stopped playing RPGs. In 2011, with no money coming in, I even started selling my old rulebooks. (Note: never do this.)

I never stopped following D&D, though. I carried on at uni and afterwards. We even tried a few one-shots – 4th edition, Pathfinder – but they weren’t quite right. But then 5th edition came out in December 2014. We first tried it nearly a year later, as a one-shot, and by spring we were playing through Curse of Strahd on Fantasy Grounds. Now, four years later, it’s safe to say I’m hooked again. It’s amazing to think of the new friendships I’ve forged thanks to this game, and even more amazing to think that nearly two decades on, in different cities, with different jobs, and some of us bringing up future players, the same five nerds from back home are still rolling dice.

So: why blog? To some extent, why not. After nearly 20 years of playing tabletop RPGs, I might not have hit my 10,000 hours of practice just yet, but I’ve definitely learned a few things along the way. I hope by sharing my articles I will give you some new ways to enhance your game. It’s a fantastic hobby. It brings me enormous joy and fulfilment. And as far as I’m concerned, there has never been a better time to play.

So … (sc)roll initiative!

* You might think I have changed this name to protect the privacy of an individual. You would be wrong.