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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How to be a good D&D player

‘At the end of the day, D&D is a game,’ a friend of mine said recently, ‘and some people just play it better than others.’

I’ve been giving this some thought of late. D&D is, of course, a game. It has rules. If you’re playing with a grid and minis, it also has a ‘board’ of sorts. But it’s also (a) extremely social, and (b) a creative outlet: an artform, even. Some players come along for the power-gaming, some want to roleplay, some just want to hang out. ‘Playing the game well’, then, is perhaps more complex than it sounds.

With that in mind, I’ve broken up this article into three sections: how to make the most of the rules; how to not be a dick (for want of a better phrase – aka ‘Wheaton’s Law’); and how to be a good storyteller and roleplayer. To me, the best D&D players are a mix of all three, but, at the same time, it’s OK to not be good at all of it. Everybody brings something different to the table, and that’s not a bad thing, either.

Mastering the rules

Don’t get me wrong: mastering the rules isn’t the be-all and the end-all of being a good D&D player. But it helps.

Knowing the rules will help you enjoy the game, even if the rules are not that important to you. It will free you up to focus on what’s actually happening at the table. Knowing the rules also helps to take away some of the conflict that might arise between the players and the DM. The rules are a neutral arbiter: if you all agree to follow them, there are fewer arguments about what you can and cannot do, and in a game that fundamentally revolves around making stuff up in your imagination, that matters. D&D is also a co-op game, of course, so if you know the rules well yourself, you’re also going to help your teammates: help them survive, help them kick butt, help them progress and feel badass.

As a player, then, what are the most important rules to know?

I’m going to skip over the stuff that’s truly basic: the names of the dice, the six ability scores, advantage and disadvantage, that kind of thing. All of that is a given. What all players need to be confident in is the options they use most frequently. Core class features like a rogue’s sneak attack or a paladin’s divine smite; racial traits like lucky for halflings and relentless endurance for halflings; feats like Great Weapon Master and War Caster. If it’s an ability you can expect to use at least once a session, you should be confident with how it works.

Why? For several reasons. Stopping to look up these rules is an unnecessary interruption to the flow of the game. It’s irritating for other players and the DM. It can lead to the party wasting its resources needlessly, or even, in the worst case scenario, character death. Now, if it’s a new character for you, or you’re new to the game, this is all, of course, forgivable. But if you’ve been playing for a few sessions and you simply haven’t bothered to find out what your character can do – ‘how does flurry of blows work, guys?’ – you’re going to rub your teammates up the wrong way.

D&D - Unearthed Arcana - Monks - Bell of Lost Souls

Wizards of the Coast

What about spells? Should a spellcaster know how every spell in the game works? No, of course not. I’ve been playing D&D for nearly 20 years, and I’m still coming across spells that are new to me, particularly at higher levels. But if they’re your bread and butter, you should know how they work, and, to be honest, if you’ve chosen to prepare them, then it would be to have at least a vague sense of how they work.

If you are playing a character with a lot going on – a multiclass character, for instance, or one of the more complex core classes like a paladin or a spellcaster – then you may want to make yourself a combat cheat sheet. What’s your default action in most rounds? Are there any ‘combos’ you can do (like Great Weapon Master and Reckless Attack for barbarians). When do you pull out the big guns? And what’s your escape route?

Rules mastery is not just about playing your character effectively but building your character effectively. This is what some players refer to as ‘optimizing’ – somewhat disparagingly, perhaps, along with terms like ‘min-maxing’ and ‘munchkinnery’. Building your character to try and break the game is mean-spirited and self-defeating. Building your character to be effective and fun to play, however: that’s fine! If you’re meant to be the party sneak, for example, and you’re wearing heav armour and boosting your Strength instead of your Dex, that’s not helping anyone.

Does all of this mean that you have to do a bit of prep to be a good D&D player? Frankly: yes. Not a lot – and there are plenty of great resources out there to help you, like rpgbot.net – but a bit of forward planning will make your character easier to play, faster to play, and better to play. You will probably have more fun, and so will your teammates. As prep goes, it will be nothing compared to what your DM is doing week in, week out.

The social side (or ‘don’t be a dick’)

It always makes me laugh when I hear that Critical Role is scripted | Sage  Advice D&D

Be friends, like these guys.

There are horror stories on the Internet of truly toxic behaviour at D&D games. (Indeed, there’s an entire subreddit devoted to such things.) Fortunately, I’ve never had to deal with such people, but that’s probably because I’ve only ever played D&D with friends, not strangers.

D&D has an unwritten social contract. We’re all there to have fun: to tell stories, roll dice, make jokes, and escape the ratrace of everyday life. That’s why it’s great. But, just with any social activity, there are behaviours that are going to grate over time, and as players, it’s worth reflecting now and then whether we might be guilty of any of them ourselves.

As with rules mastery, I’m going to skip over the most basic stuff here. Racism, misogyny, rape: that stuff stinks and has no place at any table. And just to be clear: that list is only the start, and not exhaustive. (Incidentally, the latest edition of Pathfinder has a useful section called ‘the Pathfinder Baseline’ which is worth reading in its entirety. It is transferrable to any tabletop roleplaying game, not just D&D.)

You Can Be The Best D&D Player Ever. Here's How. | Geek and Sundry

Wizards of the Coast

Putting aside rules mastery and creative input, then, here are a few suggestions for being a good player:

  • Thank your DM. I put this top of the list for a reason. Most DMs work far harder than the players do in order to make the game enjoyable. Appreciate them! With Christmas coming up, maybe buy them something as a token of your gratitude.
  • Be on time. A simple thing, but, y’know, it matters. If you know you’re not going to make a session, or you’re going to be late, try to give the group as much warning as possible. ‘Life stuff’ happens, but where possible, be courteous.
  • Listen. We all zone out from time to time, but try to follow what’s going on, especially when the DM is describing something important. This can be especially difficult with online games, so close those tabs and put your webcam on to keep yourself engaged.
  • Include others. When I think about the best players I have played with, this is one of the things that keeps coming up. Ask what other characters are doing; engage in dialogue; interract with something the DM has described. It’s a cooperative game: it’s not all about you.
  • Be ready on your turn. D&D is a complex game, and it’s not always possible to know how your character is going to act, but it’s good to try and plan your move before your turn comes round in the initiative order. (This is partially linked to rules mastery, above.)
  • Respect the DM’s decisions. Again, D&D is a complex game, and DMs don’t always get it right, especially if they’re inexperienced. But arguing with the DM in front of the group is a dick move. Save it for after the session. (For more on this, see my post here.)
  • Welcome new players. Note that this verb is active: being welcoming is more than just an absence of hostility. Smile. Ask them how they are. Make them feel included. Joining a new group is daunting: don’t make it harder than it already is.

I’ve probably missed something here. If in doubt, though, just don’t be a dick.

Storytelling and roleplaying

So far, I’ve focused on the mechanics (rules mastery) and the social side of how to be a better player. There’s one more category: how to contribute a fantastic D&D story.

Dungeons and Dragons movie release date, cast and plot

Wizards of the Coast

This post is already getting a little long, though, so I will revert to bullet points again here.

  • Invest in your character. Yes, they might die, but even so, develop your character and think about what makes them tick. How are they different from other characters you’ve made? What are their long-term hopes and dreams? What is their internal conflict? Do they have a backstory? As a DM, I take a leaf out of Mike Shea’s book and write down ten secrets and clues before every session. What would your character’s ten secrets be?
  • Collaborate. This one word covers a multitude of different things. Build a character that fits the party theme. Ask questions to ‘bring in’ other roleplayers, especially if they’re shy. Read the room: if the group is taking something seriously, hold off on the cheesy puns. Know when to redirect the spotlight, not hog it.
  • Get the voice right. This is a big one for me. Unlike actors and animators, most players don’t get to portray a character visually or physically: all they have is description and a voice. What is your character’s voice like? Alec Guinness once said that he never ‘got’ a character unless he had mastered exactly how they walked. For us D&D players, your voice is your most powerful roleplaying tool. Try to stay in character if you can: roleplaying in the first person is so much more evocative and memorable than third-person description.
  • Take notes. No one’s asking you to write a publishable diary here, but jot a few things down during the session. It’s not just the DM’s job!
  • Try your hand at DMing. I firmly believe that DMing makes you a better player, just as being a player makes you a better DM.
  • Be proactive and reactive. Paradoxical, perhaps, but not contradictory. Make things happen! Contribute! Do the thing! But at the same time: when unexpected stuff happens, roll with it. One of the most sacred principles of good improv is ‘yes, and’. In a game that revolves around random dice rolls and constant collaboration, being reactive is not just preferable: it’s essential. Embrace the weirdness and have fun.

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Death in D&D

Wizards of the Coast

Dying in D&D is momentous. A big part of what makes the game fun is creating a character, investing in them, breathing life into them, and watching them grow from session to session. You don’t ‘win’ D&D by killing things and gaining XP: you win when you have stories to reminisce over with your friends. So when you watch a character die before their time – when you realize that you are never going to play them again – that can be a surprisingly moving moment. And it’s important, therefore, that it’s handled properly.

Talk it through

Character death can be unpredictable. It can be caused by a nasty trap, a stupid decision, a dragon’s fiery breath, or insurmountable odds. But it can also be truly random. I’ve seen low-level characters get killed by an animated broom.

If you’re running a session zero (and you should), have a conversation about character death. How do characters feel about it? Is it off the table? Is it part and parcel of adventuring life? Does it make for a good story? Are there means of bringing characters back to life? If so, how easy are they to come by? Perhaps the characters simply ‘respawn’ like they might in a video game; perhaps they need the aid of rare and powerful magic or divine intervention. Plenty of great characters in fiction have come back from the dead – Gandalf, Harry Potter, Jon Snow, Sherlock Holmes, Kenny McCormick – but it’s usually an important and memorable moment, so savour it. Consider whether the character comes back changed somehow, either spiritually or physically.

It’s important to have this conversation early as 1st level as the deadliest in the game. A single crit from a half-decent enemy can knock a character unconscious, and crits happen five percent of the time. It can also be an important conversation to have if you’re running some of the deadlier campaign adventures. Rime of the Frostmaiden and Lost Mine of Phandelver both have some very deadly encounters at low levels, and Tomb of Annhilation even recommennds a ‘meat grinder mode’.

Tomb of Annihilation | Dungeons & Dragons

Wizards of the Coast

Perhaps your players are divided: some want embrace the risk, while others seek the assurance of playing the same character session after session, even if they make a really bad mistake. D&D is meant to be fun, so don’t force something on the group if they’re not happy with it. Perhaps you can agree on some alternatives to dying (see my ideas below). Perhaps you decide that, in some situations, it’s OK for the DM to make a judgement call: if the death is heroic, fitting, memorable, or just, then the character dies permanently, but if it’s anticlimactic, ridiculous, inconvenient, or unfair somehow, then perhaps the DM comes up with an alternative.

What might those alternatives look like?

Cheating death

Sometimes death isn’t the right option. Below are some variants you might want to use.

  • Casual difficulty. Instead of dying, a character gains a level of exhaustion. (What happens if they reach six levels of exhaustion, though? Something to consider.)
  • War wounds. Instead of dying, a character gains a random lingering injury from the table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
  • Revenant. The character is spared from death but returns to earth on borrowed time. The ‘Hollow One’ rules in Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount work well here.
  • Taken out. This is adapted an idea from Fate. Essentially, it’s a way of recasting what ‘death’ means. Instead of ‘dying’ , you are ‘taken out’ and the DM gets to decide what happens next to your character. Torture? Imprisonment? Transformation?
  • Nine lives. Roll 1d8 when a character dies to see how many lives they have left. (I borrowed this idea from Gnome Stew.)
  • New-U station. Perhaps it is possible to respawn but it costs a percentage of gold and/or XP.
  • Marked to die. For some reason, you don’t die – this time. But death is coming. At some point in the future (perhaps when the player rolls a 1 on their Initiative score), the character’s nemesis appears as if summoned, and they will die permanently if the monster cannot be defeated. A fiend, celestial, grim reaper, yeth hound: something wants them dead and they can’t escape.
  • Doppelganger. That’s right: the character wasn’t really who you thought they were! Perhaps they were a clone, an imposter, a psionic projection, or something else. Be careful not to overuse this one.
  • Came back wrong. The character returns to life, but they’re not . . . right, somehow. Perhaps they now register as undead to spells and spell-like abilities, and cats hiss at them in the street.
  • Harrowed. A brush with death is traumatic. The character returns to life, but roll on the long-term madness table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
  • Soul transfer. Perhaps the soul survives but finds a new body. Something on their character sheet changes (race, class, gender, age) but everything else stays the same.
  • Unexplained revival. The character doesn’t die – and no one knows why. Their return from the brink becomes a story in itself. Is it a prophecy? A twist in the fabric of time? The interference of the Raven Queen? Tell a story from it.
Shadowfell | Artio Wiki | Fandom

Wizards of the Coast

The undiscovered country

Some DMs take a very adversarial, old-school approach with their players, and character death is common. Others try to make sure that the same characters are there from one session to the next, and see character death as a terrible mistake. For me, character death is an opportunity for fantastic storytelling, but it needs to be given the attention it deserves. If the death doesn’t feel ‘right’, then think carefully about whether it’s something you want to go through with.

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Player Surveys: Talking to the Team

Wizards of the Coast

In this post, I am going to look at feedback surveys as a way of hearing from your players. They don’t need to be done frequently to provide a useful insight into how the game is going.

D&D rests upon good relationships. People put a lot of themselves into this hobby: not just time, money, and energy, but potentially an element of personal vulnerability, too. If you’re giving up three or four hours a week to sit at a table with your friends, building stories together, you want to have fun while you’re doing it.

The problem is, different players enjoy different things, and in a game that rests on personal relationships, it’s not always easy to bring this up. What if you want a game like Critical Role – immersion heavy with lots of roleplaying and storytelling – but your DM is more interested in wargaming over five-inch battle grids? What if you want something light-hearted and humorous, but everyone else wants to take the game a bit more seriously?

Emotional intelligence and the ability to read the room are key qualities in a good DM, but even the most perceptive DM is going to misread the players sometimes, especially if you’re playing online. It’s very easy for DMs to get caught up in their own personal experience and forget that the players might be looking for something different.

This is where a feedback survey can be, literally, a gamechanger. If it’s done online, it can be anonymous, unfiltered, and personalized: a chance to speak openly about how things are going. That does mean, of course, that you might get feedback you’re not expecting. But that’s kind of the point.

Breaking down the feedback survey

Tomb of Annihilation: Hex crawl procedure – Technoskald's Forge

Wizards of the Coast

So, how often should you ask your players for feedback, and what sorts of questions should you ask?

Some DMs do a quick survey after every session. Personally, that seems a bit overkill to me. You might end up with more data, but it’s not going to be as rich, potentially. You might be able to track whether players enjoyed a particular session, for example, but will the survey tell you why they enjoyed it? For most groups, a survey two or three times a year is probably about right.

I try to avoid textboxes as it helps keep the answers anonymous (and makes it quicker to complete). I tend to start with a couple of more ‘administrative’ questions (eg, session length, session frequency, preferred online platform, etc) before moving on to questions about playstyle. Here are some of the questions I would usually ask:

  • Do you prefer gridded combat, theatre of the mind, or a mix between the two?
  • Do you think the ‘three pillars of adventure’ (combat, exploration, and social interaction) have been balanced?
  • As a player, which activities do you enjoy most and least? (I use the activities on page 6 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.)
  • Is combat too easy, too difficult, or about right?
  • Do the players want to use any variant rules?
  • Are you happy with your character?

This year, I’ve included a couple of questions about DM issues and player issues. The players can rate each issue based on how much it has been a problem: ‘never’, ‘seldom’, ‘some of the time’, or ‘most of the time’. If you’re using something like SurveyMonkey, you can score each answer based on player responses: ‘never’ would be +0, ‘seldom’ would be +1, and so on, up to +3. It helps you see what the group consensus is, and whether it changes over time.

Here is my list of DM issues (adapted from a similar list by Sly Flourish):

  • Forcing the story
  • Taking away player agency
  • Being too adversarial
  • Ignoring the desires of the players
  • Inflexibility
  • Lack of creativity
  • Unfairness
  • Impatience
  • Not listening
  • Rules knowledge
  • Humourlessness
  • Lack of preparation
  • Poor description

And here’s my list of player issues:

  • Being uncooperative
  • Spotlight hogging
  • Not paying attention
  • Metagaming
  • Rules lawyering
  • Cheating
  • Not taking the game seriously
  • Whining
  • Impatience
  • Taking the game too seriously
  • Not preparing enough
  • Lateness

Your own list might be a bit different. Keeping your questions the same, though, gives you the chance to track over time whether there has been any kind of change or improvement. Earlier in the year, for instance, my biggest issues as a DM were ‘inflexibility’, ‘impatience’, ‘rules knowledge’, and ‘poor description’. When I ran the same survey last week, my scores had gone down from two ‘seldoms’ to one, and only one issue, ‘lack of preparation’, had got worse.

I like end with the simplest but most important question: Overall, how much do you enjoy playing the campaign? Again, I give options like ‘always’, ‘most of the time’, ‘sometimes’, ‘never’, but you could use other ratings.

Responding to feedback

D&D's Statement Regarding Zak Smith | Dungeons & Dragons

Wizards of the Coast

If you’re happy with the feedback: great! It might be that there are no great surprises: that you know your players well and can read the room. It’s still good to check.

On the other hand, there might be some unexpected negativity. If so, try not to take it personally. DMing is hard, and people get better at it over time. In fact, it’s very difficult to get better at anything without constructive feedback. Perhaps go back to your group and ask for more detail. You could talk to them separately or do another survey with the option to include fuller answers. See if there are one or two things you can focus on, like speeding up combat or prepping more efficiently. Alternatively, perhaps take a break from DMing for a while and come back to it when you’re feeling more positive.

Other surveys

What's in the Bag? | Dungeons & Dragons

Wizards of the Coast

Finally, it can also be good to do a questionnaire at the end of a campaign or before starting a new one. These will be quite different, potentially. Before a campaign, you might want to find out what sort of campaign people are looking for. Do they want a short campaign or a long one? Which campaign setting do they want to use? Do they want to use a different system?

At the end of a campaign, you might want to combine the feedback part of your survey with a jokey ‘awards’ ceremony. At the end of our Tomb of Annihilation campaign, for example, we gave out awards like the Sean Bean Award for Best Character Death and the Matt Mercer Award for Best Roleplaying. D&D might not be a game about ‘winning’, but when you replay these moments with your friends, you come pretty close.

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Is D&D art?

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

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

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

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

Defining ‘art’

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

Shakespeare’s Globe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why roleplaying games are not art

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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In Praise of Adventures in Middle-Earth

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

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

New classes

Cubicle 7

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

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

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

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

Cultures embedded in the setting

New Line Cinema

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

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

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

There and back again

Lord of the Rings - Choose Your Own Adventure

New Line Cinema

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

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

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

The Shadow and corruption

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

New Line Cinema

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

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

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

The road goes ever on and on

Virtual Tolkien Is A Free VR Recreation Of An Iconic LOTR Film Scene

New Line Cinema

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

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Rolling Stats

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

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

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

Preamble

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

Wizards of the Coast

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

How do you get around that?

Option 1: take a break

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

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

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

100 Long Rest Events – Dndspeak

Run a dungeon

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

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

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

Start strong

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

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

Fill time

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

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

Wizards of the Coast

Let the players take over

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

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

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

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Using Published Campaign Settings

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

How should you go about using a published campaign setting?

Where to start?

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

Here are my tips.

1. Choose your flavour

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

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

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

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

2. Start local

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

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

3. Steal, steal, steal

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

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

4. Drill down the ‘aspects’

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

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

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

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

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

5. Three big schemers

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

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

6. Break canon: kill your darlings

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

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

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

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Making Combat Engaging

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

1. Not all combats are equally engaging

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

2. Mix it up

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

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

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

Wizards of the Coast

3. Keep it moving

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

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

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

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

Wizards of the Coast

4. Spotlight hogging

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

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

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

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

5. DM hacks

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

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

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

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

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

Marisha Ray on Twitter (@Marisha_Ray)

6. Evocative description

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

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

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

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

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

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