Modding D&D

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

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

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

The ranger

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race

Wizards of the Coast

The problem: race is problematic and restrictive.

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

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

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

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

I highly recommend reading the introduction in its entirety.

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

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

Arms and equipment

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

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

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

Death saves

The problem: dying in combat is mechanically boring.

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

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

Heroic resolve

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

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

Which of these rules would you use in your game?

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The Perfect D&D Party

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

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

The gamist approach

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

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

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

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

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

The narrativist approach

New Line Cinema

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

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

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

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

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

A perfect party?

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

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

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

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

Creating Awesome Characters

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

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

In praise of human fighters

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

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

via Twitter (@DMEducational)

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

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

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

It’s the difference between character and characterization.

Choices under pressure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tips and tricks

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

What really matters

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

Planning a Campaign Story

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

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

Roleplaying games as a form

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

Two things make roleplaying games unusual.

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

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

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

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

‘Don’t prep plots’

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

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

Emergent narratives

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

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

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

20 levels of story beats

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

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

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

The beat sheet

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

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

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

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

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

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

In summary:

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

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

Pros and cons of online play

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

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

Pros: technology

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

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

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

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

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

Cons: technology

Make sure your IT is up to scratch

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

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

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

Tricks of the trade

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

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

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

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

Final thoughts

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

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

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

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.

Battlefield Environments

In a hot, dusty forge, an escaped pirate trades sword blows with the blacksmith’s apprentice. Alarmed by the fighting, a braying donkey starts the grindstone turning, and the two men have to duck in and out of the great rotating cogwheel festooned with swords and chains.

It’s late, and the bartender is alone for the night, when four thugs come to the tavern looking for an artefact. In the ensuing fight, a hot poker is knocked from the hearth and hits a curtain, which quickly catch fire. Before long the flames are working their way across the ceiling. A tables is flipped on its side for cover and glasses come smashing to the floor. The young bartender crawls behind the bar, grabs a burning log, and brings it down on someone’s head with a thwack.

An elf shoots arrow after arrow as more and more orcs threaten to overwhelm the battlements. It’s a narrow walkway, slick with rainwater, and soldiers go flying to their doom. Seeing his dwarf friend in trouble down below, he kicks a shield forward and uses it surf down the steps, peppering the crowd with arrows as he does so.

It’s easy to forget about the battlefield environment when playing a game of D&D. When we come up with adventures, we tend to focus on cool monster encounters and colourful NPCs: the setting is often a bit of an afterthought But as the examples above suggest – from Pirates of the Caribbean, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers respectively – no combat takes place in a vacuum, and even one or two terrain features can make a fight memorable and unique.

Battlefield environments are not just about combat. For roleplayers and storytellers, environments are a way of making combat more descriptive and immersive. For explorers, a battlefield environment enriches the game world, providing new scenes and situations to interact with. The environment of a battlefield can affect every type of character, from sword-and-board fighters to sneaky rogues to spell-slinging mages. This article is about ways to make environments interesting in your game.

Rethinking the battlefield

The environment of a battle is more than just window dressing. It needs to affect both the narrative and gameplay.

In game terms, terrain is probably going to do one of the following things:

  • Restrict movement (a wall, a locked door)
  • Provide new modes of movement (teleports, stairs)
  • Provide cover (a tree, a pillar)
  • Act as difficult terrain (snow, rubble)
  • Deal damage (pit traps, whirling blades)
  • Obscure vision (fog, darkness)
  • Impose a condition (sleep gas, the symbol spell)
  • Offer interaction (an object to throw, a lever to switch)

If it doesn’t meaningfully change gameplay, it is essentially window dressing. That’s still cool, of course, but if it doesn’t affect the game in some way, players are probably going to forget about it (as are you).

Steal, steal, steal. DMs are under pressure to be original, but don’t punish yourself for adapting ideas from elsewhere. That’s creative, too. Films and video games can be great for inspiration, and there are some really good lists online to get you thinking, too (eg, this post from Hipsters and Dragons). The Dungeon Master’s Guide in 3.5 had whole sections on dungeons, wilderness, weather, and environment, and you can read it online at the SRD. The random tables in the 5th edition DMG (Appendix A) are also really good for sparking your imagination.

Visual aids. If you use miniatures, why not invest in some terrain pieces like those from Mantic Games or WizKids. Just having them at the table might be enough to make you use them creatively. (If you are interested in tabletop terrain that works with miniatures, I will be reviewing the new WizKids WarLock tiles when my pre-order arrives over the next few weeks.)

Some other pointers:

Remember the fantastic. It’s right there in the introduction of the Player’s Handbook: ‘The Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game is about storytelling in worlds of swords and sorcery.’ Instead of a stone wall, have a wall of fire. Instead of a rope bridge, use a force field. Don’t worry about explaining why the magic is there every time. It’s magic, not physics.

Think about the five senses. This is a basic creative writing tip but it works for combat encounters, too. What can the characters hear? Is there an odour in the room? What’s the air like? What’s the temperature? These things matter, and sometimes they even have an in-game effect. A noisy forge makes it easier to sneak up on your opponents. A humid jungle can be a nightmare for characters in heavy armour.

Think in three dimensions. Dungeon maps tend to be more horizontal than vertical, probably because it’s easier to draw on a single sheet of paper, but some of my most memorable battles have been in three dimensions: a mine shaft, a tower, a series of platforms floating in the sky at different heights. Try it!

Even simpler

For an even simpler approach, Fate Core has a neat way of defining Obstacles.

  • Hazards: things that hurt;
  • Blocks: things that get in the way;
  • Distractions: things that force you to figure out your priorities.

This is not a bad starting point for thinking about terrain in your adventure. Focus on your current adventure and see if you can come up with some hazards, blocks, or distractions that could use in encounters. For example, if your characters are making their way through some rocky crags, you could have steep slopes, scree, undergrowth, chasms, and cliffs, all of which are ‘blocks’ but work in different ways. You could also make an encounter memorable with bad weather like snow, wind, or rain. Use the idea of Aspects (Fate’s ‘big thing’) and give your battlefield one or two noteworthy features that the players can engage with.

Final thoughts

Less is more. One or two terrain features is all you need. More than that and you are going to end up with a very complicated encounter, for you and the players. You probably have enough to remember as it is.

Beware the grind. If a character is less effective at hitting the enemy because of the battlefield environment, two things are likely to happen. One, the combat will drag out. Two, the player will get frustrated and feel a loss of agency. If you are adding terrain elements, try to include ways that players can avoid or mitigate their effects.

Not just for boss fights. If you know you tend to forget about battlefield terrain, think about the first encounter of the session (what Mike Shea calls the ‘strong start’). You can do more preparation for this encounter than any other, so it’s a good opportunity to try something new.

Check the difficulty. In most situations, the battlefield favours the defenders, (ie, the enemy). Otherwise, what are the enemy doing there? Advantageous terrain can turn a ‘medium’ encounter into a ‘hard’ one and a ‘hard’ encounter into a ‘deadly’ one. Be careful, especially at lower levels when characters have fewer options (and hit points).

Know the rules. Depending on the environment, you may need to refamiliarize yourself with the rules for concealment, difficult terrain, squeezing into a smaller space, cover (including how it works on a grid), and even underwater combat.

An empty room is OK sometimes. Adventurers need somewhere to rest. Perhaps they want to feel powerful cutting down hordes of enemies. Perhaps the encounter is complicated enough as it is and a fairly bare arena is sufficient. Make life easy for yourself and choose when you want the environment to have the most impact.