How to Run a ‘Big Bad’

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

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

Memorable villains

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

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

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

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

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

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

Wizards of the Coast

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

In summary, then:

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

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

Memorable showdowns

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

Wizards of the Coast

To this great advice, I would add my own:

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

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

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

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Evil D&D

Troika Games/Atari

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

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

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

Hang on: heroes? Who said anything about heroes?

Defining evil

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

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

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

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

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

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

Playing an evil campaign

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why evil

Wizards of the Coast

Now we get into pop psychology.

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

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

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

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Diablo D&D

Blizzard Entertainment

Last Monday marked the 20th anniversary of Diablo II. What a game!

Back when it was released in 2000, it was the fastest selling computer game ever. It is still highly regarded and has appeared on numerous ‘best of’ lists, including Time’s ‘50 Best Video Games of All Time’ list in 2016.

Diablo has a very distinctive (and fun) playstyle, which could definitely work well in 5th edition D&D. However, it requires a few tweaks to pull off.

Tone and flavour

The original Diablo takes place entirely within the town of Tristram. The player has to hack their way through 16 levels of dungeons beneath the cathedral until they face off with the Lord of Terror himself, Diablo.

Diablo II expands the world of Sanctuary considerably. Act II takes place in a desert city, Lut Gholein, and Act III goes to Kurast, a corrupted city on the edge of a jungle. The expansion, Lord of Destruction, adds a fifth act set in the icy wastes and caves of Mount Arreat.

Despite this changing scenery, however, the game never loses its dark and gothic atmosphere, so any D&D adaptation needs to keep this front and centre. Whatever the setting, there needs to be a constant sense of gloom and dread. I wrote recently about some of the ways DMs can achieve this, but for our purposes we would be most interested in description and choice of monsters. Feel free to reskin here. Goblins could become fallen, for example, and gnolls could become goatmen.

Fast play

Wizards of the Coast

When Diablo II was released in 2000, Wizards of the Coast partnered with Blizzard Entertainment to produce a number of D&D tie-ins. Bill Slavicsek and Jeff Grubb produced a ‘Diablo II Fast-Play Game’ based on the rules for 2nd-edition AD&D (3rd edition was released later that year).

The name here is telling. Hack and slash play needs to be fast to be fun, and for a tabletop game to be fast, it also needs to be streamlined (ie, simplified). But here’s the rub: a Diablo-style game also has the potential to become more complex because it adds things like skill trees, loot, and mobs of enemies, so a D&D Diablo game is going to need a few tricks.

In terms of skill trees, there’s no need to change much about D&D as written. Feats and subclasses are specialization enough. But in regard to making your game play faster, I highly recommend some of the tips from Sly Flourish. If you want to run a Diablo-style adventure, give the following articles read:

Grid-based combat has its place. So, too, does rolling initiative and rolling monster damage. For many groups, they are habits formed after many years of playing different editions of D&D. However: if you want to give your players the feeling that they can mow through hordes of enemies with gusto, consider a grid-free approach.

Fast play does not have to mean fast progression, of course. Diablo has an absurdly high level cap compared to D&D, so there’s no need to gun through all 20 levels at once. If you’re used to milestone levelling, I would suggest going back to traditional XP for this style of game. It’s a better way of tracking the scale of the slaughter.

Loot, loot, and more loot

Blizzard Entertainment

The designers of 5th edition deliberately moved away from the magic item economics of 4th edition and 3.5. Magic items are now meant to be more meaningful: unique, special. But in Diablo, magic items are everywhere.

It’s easy to overthink magic items. In reality, if adding too many magic items makes the game ‘unbalanced’, it’s easy enough to ‘rebalance’ things by fielding harder encounters. In a Diablo-style game, most encounters will be large mobs of individually easy opponents, so it is relatively painless for a DM to keep adding enemies to the fight until the players start to feel the pinch.

So: go with what feels right. If you want to start giving out a few magic items at 1st level, try it out. If it makes them too powerful, throw more enemies at them. Rinse and repeat. That said, the number of magic items is not as important as their rarity. If you give out ‘very rare’ magic items in Tier 1, other magic items are going to feel less interesting as a result, so take care.

However, one important part of Diablo loot is its randomness. To that end, consider using random magic item tables like the ones in Chapter 7 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, or online versions like this great tool from Donjon. I would suggest rolling at least 50 percent more often than in a regular D&D campaign. Consider rolling hoards in advance, also, to save time.

One more suggestion: don’t use gems and art objects. Don’t use copper, silver, electrum, etc. Stick to gold. In a hack-and-slash game, gold is fine.

Other variant rules

There are more than 90 optional rules in the core rulebooks. These variants are ‘dials’ you can turn to fine-tune the game to your specifications. So, which rules work well for a Diablo-style game?

  • Healing Surges (p 266). This was standard for all characters in 4th edition and will help your characters live longer. You could even let characters use healing surges as a bonus action if you want to make players feel truly invincible.
  • Rest Variants: Epic Heroism (p 267). Who rests in Diablo? No one, that’s who! If resting is faster, you can throw even more baddies at your party.
  • Cleaving through Creatures (p 272). Fun, fast, full of flavour.
  • Spell Points (p 288). Controversial, this one. It may be a bit less balanced. However, if you want to recreate the feel of ‘mana’, this is certainly one way to do it.

If you have access to Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, you might also want to give players the option of crafting, buying, and selling magic items (pp 128, 126, and 133 respectively). For many players, this is a huge part of Diablo, and it gives them something to do in town and a way to spend their gold.

Tying it all together

Blizzard Entertainment

Whether you want to run a Diablo-style one-shot or a 20-level campaign, it’s worth thinking how to bring this all together.

  • Encounters. In Diablo, solo opponents are rare: usually very powerful bosses. Large mobs with waves and waves of opponents are the norm. Use Donjon’s Encounter Size Calculator to get a sense of what your party can cope with. If in doubt, go with many easy opponents over fewer, more challenging ones.
  • Adventures. Keep the focus simple. The first quest of Diablo II is literally ‘kill all the enemies in a cave’. In fact, most quests in the game can be boiled down to ‘kill enemy x’ or ‘retrieve enemy y’. The players aren’t looking for deep immersion roleplaying here. Consider rolling random dungeons from the appendices of the DMG. Pick a cool setting and run with it (caves, ruins, hell).
  • Campaigns. Whether or not you set your game in the world of Sanctuary is up to you. Other than a few settlements (Tristram, Lut Gholein, Kurast, Caldeum) most of the map is unexplored, so you still have creative freedom here. Given the more casual nature of a hack-and-slash campaign, you may want to adopt a more sandboxy West Marches model where players can drop in and out as they like.

Destruction awaits

If D&D to you is mainly about immersive roleplaying, rich backstories, political intrigue, and layered world-building . . . this maybe isn’t for you. But if it’s all about the ‘mayhem’ and the ‘sick loot’, give Diablo-style D&D a try!

Horror in D&D

Wizards of the Coast

Last month, the D&D team revealed that the next hardcover adventure would be Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden, a tale of dark terror set in the far north of the Forgotten Realms. Chris Perkins is back in the driving seat as lead designer, having played a key role in both Curse of Strahd and Tomb of Annihilation, two of the most popular adventures in 5th edition. With John Carpenter’s The Thing being given as one of the primary influences, expectations are – understandably – running high.

What makes a great horror adventure? How can DMs pull of a fantastic horror campaign?

Why we love horror

Horror is a broad genre with ancient origins. Frankenstein was greatly influenced by the myth of Hippolytus, for example. There are stories about ghosts, demons, witches, and shapeshifters to be found all over the world. Horror taps into something primal. H P Lovecraft famously wrote that ‘the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear’, and ultimately, this is what we seek out in horror: a ‘controlled thrill’ like we might get from a rollercoaster, a catharsis that reminds us that we are alive.

Horror comes in different flavours, of course:

Gothic horror is probably the oldest subgenre of horror. It is preoccupied with atmosphere and strange settings, especially those that are menacing or mysterious. The gothic world is a place of isolation or imprisonment where the present is haunted by the past. Curse of Strahd is gothic, drawing as it does from the original Ravenloft module, which itself is heavily inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Wizards of the Coast

Cosmic horror, codified by H P Lovecraft, is probably its spiritual successor: an intensely pessimistic, almost nihilistic subgenre which revolves around humanity’s insignificance and powerlessness in the face of a vast, indifferent, indescribable, and unstoppable alien threat. In D&D, we see hints of this with monsters like aboleths, chuuls, and mind flayers.

Rime of the Frostmaiden sounds like it might be drawing on elements of psychological horror by introducing an intriguing new ‘secrets’ mechanic to sow paranoia and distrust among the players. Many of Stephen King’s novels are psychological horrors.

There are plenty of other horror subgenres that have never quite made it into mainstream D&D, such as survival horror (Resident Evil, Darkest Dungeon), religious horror (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist), and even slashers or splatter horror (John Carpenter’s Halloween, Friday the 13th). There’s no reason why they wouldn’t work, though, either as one-off adventures or as full-length campaigns.  

Session zero

If you want to run a horror adventure in D&D, or even a horror campaign, the first rule is this: run a session zero.

More than any other play style, horror needs agreed expectations and clear boundaries. Horror runs the gamut from silly pastiche to real terror, and people have different thresholds for what they enjoy. Talk about books, games, and films you like, the characters you want to play.

Similarly, horror can touch on issues that make people very uncomfortable. Curse of Strahd, for example, includes stereotypical (and arguably ableist) depictions of madness, women who are imprisoned and predated upon, and a mini-adventure, ‘Death House’, where there are references to both dead children and stillbirth. D&D is meant to be fun, and your table needs to be a safe place. Mistakes can still happen, of course, but talking things through in advance is definitely helpful.  

A session zero is also important because it helps you gauge buy-in. Creating a great atmosphere is as much the players’ responsibility as it is the DM’s, and if some people in your group aren’t really into it, that can make the game less fun for everyone else. You’re going to end up in trouble when one player wants to be an edgy Van Helsing–style undead hunter and another wants to play a Treehouse of Horror–inspired Dracula parody. As with any adventure, see what people want to play and try to find a compromise.

Horror at the table

How, then, do we make a horror adventure awesome? There are three things to think about: description, gameplay, and – for want of a better word – window dressing.

Describing horror

The introduction of Curse of Strahd features a really nice section called ‘Marks of Horror’ (page 7) which summarizes how to pull off a gothic atmosphere. In essence, it means drawing on established gothic tropes: the uncanny, the unknown, the sublime, the unnatural. Horror is often more unsettling if you hint at it and build up to it instead of describing it outright, so focus on sensory details. Less is more.

Another useful concept here is the idea of ‘story beats’, originally a concept from filmmaking but now equally relevant in game design and adventure writing. In Hamlet’s Hit Points, Robin D Laws uses this concept to track how stories move back and forth between hope and fear, using examples like Casablanca and Dr No to show how it works. Think about story beats in a horror adventure. Relentless, inescapable dread is ultimately unsustainable: you need hope, levity, and even humour in a horror story to balance out the bits that are most frightening. (Choose your moments, though. Curse of Strahd offers a fantastic climax in the catacombs of Castle Ravenloft, but the comedy names on the epitaphs – ‘Sir Klutz Tripalotsky’ the clumsy and the treacherous ‘Stahbal Indi-Bhak’, for example – somewhat undermine the atmosphere.)   

Lastly, it goes without saying, but draw as many ideas as you can from books, films, and video games. It’s not cheating: it’s inspiration.      

Game mechanics

If description is ‘fluff’, this is the ‘crunch’. Depending on the kind of horror you’re going for, the standard D&D rules might not work for you. Perhaps you want a low-magic campaign. Perhaps you want healing to be harder to come by, or you want to introduce lingering injuries. Perhaps you want to include rules for morale. Perhaps you need to include a Sanity score alongside the other six ability scores if madness is going to be a key theme of the campaign. Fortunately, the rules for all of these things can be found in Chapter Nine of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Think of them as ‘dials’ that you can tinker with in setting up your game.

Take care, though: some of these variant rules can have a very significant effect on the game. Talk them over with your group. Good description is often all you need to create a horror atmosphere.

The table

Horror is all about atmosphere, so the further you feel from the events of the game, the less scared you’re going to be. It’s pretty hard to take Strahd seriously when someone has just cracked open a can of Coke and sent a funny meme around on their phone, for example.

A good horror adventure doesn’t necessarily require everyone to dress up – that’s probably the boundary between D&D and LARPing – but it’s worth thinking a bit about what it feels like to play at the table. Is there music playing? What’s the lighting like? Could you light some candles or put up some pictures somewhere? Do you have any cool handouts? Are phones allowed? It all depends on your group of course, but for some players, these bits of window-dressing can really help immerse them in the game.

Horror: not just for Halloween

Horror isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, and it certainly doesn’t need to form the basis of a whole campaign. However, done well, it can be a fun change of pace from a more vanilla D&D setting.

How to embrace your rules lawyer

xkcd: Ultimate Game

This article was originally posted on Dump Stat Adventures. Dump Stat is from the odd minds of two dudes, Chris and Stephen, who swear that they must have dumped Intelligence during character creation at birth. Chris has been playing and DMing D&D off and on for the past 30 years, and Stephen has a solid two years under his belt. They strive to create compelling adventures that are easy and fun for the DM to run. Link: dumpstatadventures.com

‘Acererak rises into the air with an evil cackle and points down at the platform on which you stand. A fog of poisonous, yellow-green vapour rolls outwards in a plume – ’

‘Um, this is cloudkill, right? Doesn’t fly require concentration as well?’  

‘Acererak disappears for a moment in a silvery mist, reappearing almost instantly in a space ten yards away. A bright streak flashes from his finger towards you, then blossoms with a low roar into an explosion of flame!’

‘Er, no. If you use a spell with a casting time of one bonus action, you can’t cast another spell during the same turn, except for a cantrip with a casting time of one action.’

If you’ve ever DMed a game of D&D, you’ve probably encountered a situation like one of these. Players who argue about the rules are pejoratively known as ‘rules lawyers’, and, judging by posts on Reddit, they’re pretty common. But are rules lawyers as bad we think, and if they are, how should we tame them?

Why rules matter

There are many different ways of playing D&D. For some players, it’s akin to a wargame, with miniatures and a battle grid. This is where the game started, after all. For other groups, there’s maybe more of a focus on shared storytelling and improv, but even then they need to roll dice sometimes and track hit points and so on.

The lead rules designer, Jeremy Crawford, has this to say at the start of the Sage Advice Compendium:

Rules are a big part of what makes D&D a game, rather than simply improvised storytelling. The game’s rules are meant to help organize, and even inspire, the action of a D&D campaign. The rules are a tool, and we want our tools to be as effective as possible.  

Rules are useful because they are an agreed framework that enables everyone at the table to have fun. Good rules mean that you don’t have to constantly referee what’s going on in the game: you can instead focus on the action and adventure of an exciting fantasy story. Rules are also a check to stop the game from becoming unfair or unbalanced. Anyone can check the rules at any time, and if rulebooks are consulted to resolve a disagreement, it makes the dispute less personal. If everyone in the group is confident with the rules, there should be fewer disagreements, and if there are fewer disagreements, there should be more time available to sit back and enjoy the game.

So why are rules lawyers a bad thing?

Working with your rules lawyer

There are many good reasons for trying to minimize rules disputes.

  • Talking about rules breaks immersion for everyone else.
  • Rules disputes slow down the game.
  • The rules don’t cover every situation, and 5th Edition assumes considerable DM fiat.
  • Too much focus on the rules can hamper creativity and imagination (‘the rule of cool’).
  • Rules lawyers publicly undermine the DM’s credibility and knock their confidence.

Having said all this, it’s worth remembering that most rules lawyers are Lawful Neutral or even Lawful Good, not Lawful Evil. Many rules lawyers are only trying to help. If they care about the rules, it’s probably because they care about fairness. If you’re a new DM, perhaps they’re trying to teach you the ropes. And if you think for a moment about the rules lawyers in your own group: what is it they do for a living? If they work in a field where systems, precision, and procedure are important, it’s hardly surprising if that washes over into their D&D games sometimes.

There’s a difference between a rules lawyer and a rules expert. Embrace your rules lawyer and make them your rules consultant. If you need someone to look something up, ask the rules lawyer. At the end of every session, speak to them in private and find out if there was anything you got wrong. You can even involve them at the planning stage. Dave, how do you think an airship battle would work? What are the best rules for managing a stronghold? What are your thoughts on game balance in a low-magic campaign? There’s no such thing as a disengaged rules lawyer, so channel that engagement positively.

DMs: if you are still having problems with a rules lawyer in your group, it might be worth reflecting on your DMing before you take it up with them. Are you playing competitively, for example, DM versus the players? If so, don’t be surprised if they play back and try to win every advantage over you! Do you have a different play style to the rest of the group? Are you more interested in storytelling than wargaming? That’s fine, but it’s something to talk about. Whisper it: are you as confident in the rules as you need to be? It’s fine to get the rules wrong sometimes, and even über-DMs like Matthew Mercer make rules mistakes from time to time. The DM doesn’t have to have the best rules knowledge at the table. But they probably shouldn’t have the worst rules knowledge at the table. If you’re getting confused about basic things like attack rolls and hit points, maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world for the players to correct you once in a while. There’s no shame in admitting you got something wrong.

However: if a rules lawyer is repeatedly getting into arguments with the DM – because they are playing antagonistically, because they are trying to manipulate the game in their favour, or because there’s something personal going on between you and them – then it’s time to have a talk. Amusingly, someone on Reddit has already put together a useful flow chart for how to deal with these situations (see below).

‘Difficult conversations’ might not be fun, but sometimes they’re necessary, and if that means someone has to go . . . well, that happens sometimes. Ultimately, no D&D is better than bad D&D.  

The rules that matter the most

There are two basic rules in roleplaying which go back to the earliest days of the hobby.

This is from the first page of Basic D&D (1980). Other games have imitated it, and it’s now known affectionately as Rule Zero:

The purpose of these ‘rules’ is to provide guidelines that enable you to play and have fun, so don’t feel absolutely bound to them.

The second is the so called ‘Golden Rule’, familiar to pub quizzers everywhere. In pub quizzes, you don’t argue with the quizmaster. In D&D, you don’t argue with the DM.

I would add one more. Wherever possible, save the rules discussions for after the session.   

The three overlap. Embrace your rules lawyer, but channel their engagement positively.

Multiclassing like a boss

Her armour gleaming, the knight sheathes her longsword and stretches out her hand. Her golden eyes flash, and a mighty blast of fire surges through her veins.

Alone in the woods, the elf sends arrow after arrow into the shambling horde of ghouls. Calling down a curse upon them, she raises her holy symbol, and hot white light radiates out through the trees.  

Moving silently through the night, the assassin steps into a pool of shadow and disappears. She re-emerges from behind her target and swiftly slits his throat.   

After playing D&D for a while, you might want to go beyond the original twelve character classes. That’s where multiclassing comes in. To quote the Player’s Handbook (p 163), multiclassing allows you to gain levels in multiple classes: ‘Doing so lets you mix the abilities of those classes to realize a character concept that might not be reflected in one of the standard class options.’ Done right, multiclassing can be a brilliant way to make your character stand out from the archetype. Done badly, and it can leave you with a character that is noticeably underpowered, and ultimately, less fun to play.

A history

Before 3rd edition, multiclassing was only available to non-human characters, and you levelled up (slowly) in both classes at the same time. Only humans could change their class after 1st level, and even then they needed extremely high stats to do it.

(In fact, in 1st edition AD&D, a bard was not a core class but a very convoluted multiclass option. To start with, a human or half-elf had to have some very high ability scores: 15s or higher in Strength, Dexterity, Wisdom, and Charisma, an Intelligence of at least 12, and a Constitution of at least 10. They then had to take a specified number of levels in fighter and then thief before ultimately taking levels as a druid.)

In 3rd edition, multiclassing opened up considerably, and with the introduction of ‘prestige classes’ – specialist classes that came with certain prerequisites – it was almost expected. However, some races levelled up more slowly if they multiclassed outside their ‘favoured class’. Dwarves, for example, would take an experience point penalty if they multiclassed as anything other than a fighter.

In 4th edition, true multiclassing (known as hybrid classes) was only introduced in the Player’s Handbook III. Before then, there were class-specific feats that allowed characters to swap out one power for another. A character could then take additional powers from their ‘multiclass’ at 11th level, instead of a ‘paragon’ ability.

In 5th edition, multiclassing has become much easier. The only prerequisite is a minimum score of 13 in a key ability (two for rangers and paladins). However, it is worth emphasizing that multiclassing is now an optional rule, and it’s up to the DM to decide whether or not it is available in their campaign.

Why multiclass?

There are three main reasons for multiclassing in 5e: power, versatility, and flavour. Multiclassingmight be the only way to play the character concept you have in mind. However, there are definitely drawbacks to some multiclass combinations, and many players prefer to stick to one character class until the end of the game – and that’s fine!

Key principles of good multiclassing

Number one: talk to your DM. Make sure they are happy with you multiclassing in the first instance. Secondly, try to make sure that the character fits a concept and makes sense within the game world. Cherry-picking class combinations to be as powerful as possible is frowned upon in many groups and derisively referred to as min-maxing, powergaming, or munchkinnery.  

In game terms, though, there are a few pitfalls to avoid if you want to multiclass effectively.

1. Check your ability scores. Some classes are ‘SAD’: single-ability dependent. Rogues, for example, can survive with nothing but a good Dexterity score. A paladin, however, needs to have good scores in Charisma, Constitution, and Strength (or Dexterity), and is therefore ‘MAD’ (multiple-ability dependent). Multiclassing can make you more MAD, so unless your ability scores are good across the board, try to choose classes that rely on the same ability scores.

2. Don’t build to 20th level. Most campaigns never get that far, so if you’re waiting to higher levels for your character to ‘get good’, you’re going to be disappointed. Likewise, don’t worry necessarily about missing out on the ‘capstone’ each class gets at level 20. Some are cool (barbarian, druid, and fighter stand out) but some really aren’t (bard, ranger).

3. Think about which class you start with. Only fighters and paladins start with heavy armour proficiency, and the only way to get this later is to take a feat or multiclass as a cleric, and even then you have to pick the right domain. Your starting class is also the class that determines your saving throw proficiencies, so check which saves are most important to you.  

4. Consider waiting to Level 6. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but most classes get a fairly significant power boost at 5th level, like an extra attack or the ability to cast 3rd-level spells. Try to hold off multiclassing before then.

5. Don’t miss out ASIs. ASI stands for Ability Score Improvement, and they can be a nice power boost, even at higher levels. Most classes get them at 4th, 8th, 12th, 16th, and 19th level. Fighters and rogues get a few extra. Try not to pass them up.

Fun combinations

Some multiclass options are really, really good. There are over 130 different combinations, however, and some are very difficult to pull off. Druid and monk are particularly challenging, and often better off as a single class. The combinations below are standout, solid choices that can be very fun to play.

Fighter dips

‘Dipping’ is when you take only one or two levels in a second class, and fighter is one of the best classes for doing this. 1st level gives you a fighting style and 2nd level gives you Action Surge. If you go further, 3rd level can give you manoeuvres or improved critical, 4th level an ASI, and 5th level an extra attack. Barbarians and bards, rangers and rogues, even wizards and monks: there are several character classes that gain a lot from a few levels of fighter.  

Rangers and rogues

Rangers are widely regarded as one of the weakest classes in 5e, and a well-chosen multiclass combination can pay dividends. Cleric, rogue, and fighter (see above) can all work here, and even monk is a viable ranger multiclass. Speaking of rogues, this is another class, like fighter, that offers some sweet bonuses after just a few levels, like sneak attack, cunning action, and expertise.

The mystic theurge

5e has made it easier than ever to be a multiclass spellcaster, so it is now possible to cast both arcane and divine spells with decent effectiveness. Personally, I would take one or two levels in cleric and then concentrate on wizard, but there are other ways to do it. (Of course, if you don’t want to multiclass, the arcana domain in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide can be an equally good way of capturing the same flavour.)

The sorcadin

This might be the most powerful multiclass build in 5e. They key point of synergy is the shared spell slots. Sorcerer slots can be used for divine smite, and because sorcerers are full casters, they gain access to higher level spell slots faster than a paladin. There are other goodies, too, like Quickened Spell (spells as a bonus action!), Aura of Protection (a bonus on saving throws for you and your friends!), and shield (stacks with full plate!). Truth be told, all Charisma-based spellcasters can work well when multiclassed, but the paladin-sorcerer is probably the best.

Going solo

For all that, the twelve base classes in the Player’s Handbook are solid, enjoyable choices. Subclasses offer a great opportunity to customize your character further, and with additional options in supplements like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, and Mythic Odysseys of Theros, the possibilities are endless. Only multiclass if it’s right for you.