Humour in D&D

This post was difficult to write, for a number of reasons.

  1. It’s ironic, but writing about comedy can be distinctly unfunny. Is there anything more humourless than picking apart a joke to explain how it works?
  2. Comedy is a matter of personal taste. Take my comedy touchstones, for example: films like Monty Python, Airplane!, Anchorman, Four Lions, and In Bruges. Great films: but universally loved? No.
  3. Roleplaying games are collaborative and unpredictable: in D&D, comedy just happens. You don’t need to force it. So write about it?
  4. I have really bad RSI thanks to working from home, and I want to be able to sleep tonight without clutching my arm in pain. (If you think that was a contrived attempt at a joke, it wasn’t.)

So, with all this considered, why write about humour in D&D? Because it’s a fundamental part of the game. Having written a few posts recently that are rather academic or serious (eg, this one), I want to take a break and embrace something fun.

This post is meant to spark inspiration and give a few tips about using humour in your games. If I’ve missed something, comment at the end!

Serious fun: why humour matters

To the uninitiated, the D&D rulebooks can seem pretty heavy going or even intimidating. You’ve got acronyms and appendices, tables and diagrams, columns of 9.5-point text, and all that before you get to the polyhedral dice (‘what the heck is a d100?’). The content itself can get pretty dark, too. There’s violence (lots of it), death, evil, horror: often all four. ‘All this for a game?’

Drama teachers often refer to drama as serious fun, and I think this is a useful term for roleplaying games as well. D&D is serious, but it is also fun. The seriousness enables the fun, and the fun offsets the seriousness. In fact, the more serious the game becomes, the more you need humour to dial things back.

Wizards of the Coast have clearly embraced this in 5th edition. Look at this table, for example, from page 104 of the Player’s Handbook:

Wild Magic Table in 2021 | Dungeon master's guide, Magic table, Dungeons  and dragons homebrew

This is hilarious!

Look at the monsters, too: 5th edition has brought back classics like the flumph, the modron, the flail snail, the almiraj, and the froghemoth, and featured them prominently in published adventures.

Speaking of which, the published adventures are stuffed with comedy. In fact, generally speaking, the darker the theme, the more humour you will find. Thus, Curse of Strahd has Blinksy toys and the crypts of Castle Ravenloft, Tomb of Annihilation has Yellyark and mad monkey fruit, and Descent into Avernus has Lulu the hollyphant and abyssal chickens. Sometimes, D&D needs comedy.

Going too far

And the man in the back said everyone attack… | Dragon Heist

As I said in starting, comedy is a matter of personal taste. Few things in life are universally funny, and many things are almost universally unfunny. So, as any successful comedian will tell you: know your audience, and read the room.

It’s important to have a few safety tools in place for when a joke goes south and someone gets hurt. Again: D&D is serious fun. Monte Cook’s Consent in Gaming is an excellent (and free) PDF, and the Pathfinder baseline is a great starting point for mature content, too.

There’s another way in which humour can go ‘too far’. What if the comedy starts to derail the campaign? What if playing D&D becomes secondary to piss-takes and wisecracks?

For some people, piss-takes and wisecracks what D&D is all about! A session is an opportunity to hang out and make jokes. But if you feel it’s going too far, then talk to your players. If they want something light-hearted, then perhaps you’re fighting a losing battle by trying to make the campaign more serious. But at the same time, you are meant to be having fun as a DM, too, and your wishes matter just as much as anyone else’s. So if you feel that the game is becoming irrevocably silly, see if there’s a compromise to be had. Ultimately, though, if the rest of the group wants something very different to you, then maybe it’s better to step back for a while. No D&D is better than bad D&D.

Funny business

For the most part, D&D will be funny without you even trying. Players come up with madcap schemes all the time, and every failed dice roll is an opportunity for bathos. If you feel things are getting a bit serious, though, here are some suggestions for ways to inject a little levity in your game.

Absurd/surreal comedy. This is already a big part of D&D, as, thanks to dice rolls, much of the humour is so unpredictable. Subvert your players’ expectations now and then with something bizarre or incongruous. Descent into Avernus, for example, features a subplot where a night hag asks the players to watch her den while she goes off to visit a spa.

Anachronism. Deliberate historical inconsistency can be great fun. The Monkey Island series does this brilliantly, with vending machines, T-shirts, and fast-talking, arm-waving used car ship salesmen. Anachronism can also be hilarious in D&D. After all, it’s not like it’s particularly medieval to start with.

Jany on Twitter: "Just finished Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge as well.  As an adult, I gotta say, I can now truly appreciate Stan's epic  salesmanship 😄 Time to dive into the

Callbacks. If your campaign has been running for a while, throw in an allusion to something that happened ages ago. It’s a nice reminder of how far the players have come.

Caricature. Characters in D&D don’t need to be three-dimensional and psychologically real. NPCs are often little more than cartoons. Embrace this.

Catchphrases. Curse of Strahd has ‘Is No Fun, Is No Blinksy’. I enjoyed throwing this in at unexpected moments.

Gadof Blinsky | Curse of Strahd | Obsidian Portal

Lean into failure. By default, D&D only offers three outcomes: success, failure, and critical hits. Many players use ‘fumbles’ (critical misses) to add a bit of humour to combat.

Music. If you have background music in your games, this can be a great source of comedy. For example, ‘Yackety Sax’ (better known as the Benny Hill theme) is fanastic for chase sequences.

Parody and pastiche. Not quite the same thing: parody is generally mocking, whereas pastiche is more celebratory. Both are fun. Try imitating the style of a film, TV series, or video game, and see if the players notice, or model an NPC on a real-life celebrity or historical figure, subtly or more obviously.

D&D 5E - Check Out WizKids' Infernal War Machine Mini | EN World | Dungeons  & Dragons | Tabletop Roleplaying Games

Definitely not a Mad Max reference

Randomness. There are lots of funny random tables in 5th edition D&D, like the sorcerer’s wild magic table and the deck of many things. Randomness is great!

Ribaldry. Also known as blue comedy, this includes anything that’s off-colour, risqué, or bawdy, like innuendo. Another one that needs to be used in moderation. Use safety tools to check whether this is something your group is (occasionally) OK with.

Roasting. Insults are funny! Perhaps best between NPCs: insults between players can become personal unintentionally (or, I suppose, intentionally).

Toilet humour. Really? Weeing, pooping, farting? Well, if they’re good enough for Chaucer and Shakespeare, they’re good enough for you. Once again, though, use this sparingly, and know your audience.

Trick monsters and cursed items. Part of D&D from the very beginning, you don’t want to overuse these, but, deployed sparingly, they’re great. Mimics can be particularly fun.

Art] Modern day mimic. : DnD

Look! Trap monsters AND anachronism! Credit: u/not_that_guy_at_work

Voice acting. What are the funniest voices you can do? You don’t have to be Matt Mercer for this, and it’s a great way of making a memorable NPC. A nice trick is to have a voice that is somewhat unexpected. For example, your death knight could speaks with a high-pitched squeak, and your ancient red dragon could have a tickly cough.

Wordplay. In the catacombs beneath Castle Ravenloft, there is a crypt for Sir Klutz Tripalotsky, who ‘fell on his own sword.’ Puns are great. So are spoonerisms, malapropisms, alliteration, and so on.

Why so serious?  

I thought I would end with six rules of good comedy (or at least, comedy where D&D is concerned).

  1. Safety first. Yes, comedy can be cruel, but this is meant to be a fun game. Never lose sight of that.
  2. Know your audience. Comedy is subjective, and not everyone has the same tastes as you. If in doubt, imagine the game is rated PG.
  3. Timing is everything. Whether you’re a player or the DM, think about the ‘beats’ of the game and read the room. Don’t ruin a powerful moment with a bad joke, and try not to smother a potentially funny situation with unnecessary seriousness.
  4. Keep it natural. The motto of the Cambridge Footlights is ars est celare artem: ‘the art is to conceal the art’. Comedy shouldn’t be forced, and some of the best comedy is grounded and natural.
  5. Start with character. This comes from Brent Forrester, the head writer for The Office (US version). It’s good advice.
  6. Be warm. Before he wrote the hit sitcom Gavin & Stacey with Ruth Jones, James Corden turned to the great British playwright Alan Bennett for advice. His one tip: ‘be warm’.

Life is short and full of meanness. Cynicism is cheap. Joy is hard. Be warm. Bring a bit of humour to your game.

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Gods in D&D

Do you have deities in your campaign? How many? What are they called? What are their portfolios? Are they active in the world or mysterious and withdrawn?

For some DMs, deities are one of the most enjoyable aspects of world-building: a fun way to define their setting. For others, gods and demigods are just a headache, a chore, and something they wish the game could do without. In this article, I’m going to look at the history of deities within the game and some suggestions for how to introduce divinity into your game in perhaps more imaginative ways.

A (selective) history

Do clerics need a deity? Many players assume the answer is ‘yes’ and has always been the case. The reality is perhaps a little more nuanced.

Image result for 1974 basic set D&D

I wasn’t able to consult the 1974 boxed set (‘original D&D’), but from what I could find online, there is no list of deities, and clerics are more or less a half-way house between ‘magic-users’ and ‘fighting-men’. I’m not even sure there are any references to ‘gods’ or ‘deities’ in the original Men & Magic booklet. What’s more, from what I’ve read of Gygax and home campaign, he didn’t bother much with specific deities in the earlier years either. Since his players’ characters were generally low level, he assumed they were unlikely to interact directly with the gods, so he glossed over them. Some of his players ended up taking matters into their own hands and started to call on deities from Greek and Norse mythology and even Howard’s Conan stories. When his players evenntually asked Gygax to give them a deity of his own creation – something less vague than just ‘the gods’ – he jokingly invented Saint Cuthbert. In-game stats were eventually presented for Thor, Zeus, and so on in the fourth D&D supplement, Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes, in 1976.

Image result for D&D red box basic set

The 1977 ‘Basic Rules’ (as opposed to ‘Advanced D&D’) describes clerics as ‘humans who have dedicated themselves to one or more of the gods.’ Are these gods listed? No. The ‘red box’ of 1983 goes one step further, saying that the cleric is ‘dedicated to serving a great and worthy cause [. . .] usually the cleric’s Alignment; for example, a cleric may be dedicated to spreading law and order.’ Strikingly, it goes on to say this: ‘In D&D games, as in real life, people have ethical and theological beliefs. This game does not deal with those beliefs.’ Correspondingly, no gods or deities are listed.

From what I can see, the 1st edition AD&D Player’s Handbook (1978) also doesn’t have much to say on the subject of gods. It states that ‘a cleric is dedicated to a deity, or deities’ (italics mine), and that their spells are ‘bestowed upon them by a deity for correct and diligent prayers and deeds’, but again, no list of deities is provided or referred to.

Image result for dieties and demigods

This all changed in 1980 with the publication of Deities & Demigods, a 144-page hardcover supplement which provided background details and in-game stats for 17 different pantheons: some from fiction (eg, Cthulhu), some for nonhumans (eg, Moradin and Gruumsh), and the rest from real-life sources (eg, Egyptian, Norse, and Celtic). Deities & Demigods also addressed questions like how clerics of these religions should behave and how they are affected by the afterlife. The book was later repackaged as Legends & Lore to avoid potential conflicts with fundamentalist Christians, but the content remained more or less the same.

Like the first edition, the 2nd edition of AD&D (1989) does not provide a list of deities. Again, the Player’s Handbook refers to the cleric (now a type of ‘priest’) as ‘a believer and advocate of a god from a particular mythos,’ but goes on to say this, which is interesting: ‘In the simplest version of the AD&D game, clerics serve religions that can be generally described as “good” or “evil.” Nothing more needs to be said about it; the game will play perfectly well at this level.’ The game continued to assume that clerics were servants of a divine power, however, and a second edition of Legends & Lore was published using much of the original text.

An interesting change came in 2000 with the advent of 3rd edition. Here, as with the red box, the Player’s Handbook explicitly states that ‘some clerics devote themselves not to a god but to cause or source of divine power.’ The gods of the Player’s Handbook were borrowed from Greyhawk. Deities and Demigods returned to D&D in April 2002 and discussed different models of religion, from the traditional ‘loose’ pantheon of D&D, to monotheism, dualism, and animism. 4th edition in 2008 arguably tightened things up again, stating that a cleric ‘must choose a deity compatible with [their] alignment’.

And now 5e. Here again, as in fourth edition, it is assumed that clerics are ‘divine agents’. Indeed, the Player’s Handbook even states that ‘the most important question to eonsider is whieh deity to serve and what principies you want your character to embody.’ An appendix, ‘Gods of the Multiverse,’ provides a summary of various fictional and historical pantheons, but with none of the detail of Deities and Demigods.

Your world, your rules

Image result for shar selune

Todd Lockwood

Many D&D players assume that a D&D world has to have gods. Not just gods, but a pantheon of gods: something for every alignment, every domain. This is certainly an option, but there are others.

Monotheism. Perhaps the people of your world worship an overdeity or creator god. The different domains could be different aspects of the same deity. Perhaps the deity is worshipped by different names in different churches. Is the god neutral, at the centre of all things? Good: a force for hope? Or evil: an inescapable darkness that haunts every corner of the world?

Dualism. Instead of a pantheon, you could have just two deities in opposition with one another. What do they represent? Sun and moon? Law and chaos? Life and death? In the same way that the world of The Dark Crystal is ruled by the mystical urRu and the hideous skeksis, your world could be defined by two primal forces. Perhaps, like the urRu and the skeksis, your deities started as a single god that split somehow into two.

Pantheons. The default for many D&D worlds: perhaps you want lots and lots of gods. If so, consider the various cleric domains, the nine alignments, the twelve core classes. Is there someone for everyone to worship? You need to decide if it is a ‘tight’ pantheon where all the gods belong to one religion (eg, the gods of Asgard or Mount Olympus) or a ‘loose’ pantheon like hte gods of Greyhawk and Faerûn. Are there different deities for different ancestries: gnomes, dwarves, elves, and so on?

Animism. This is the idea that spirits inhabit every part of the natural world: animals, plants, stones, fire, wind. In Legend of the Five Rings, for instance, shugenja cast their spells by calling on spirits called the kami to aid them.

Cheats. Do you want to steal the deities from another campaign setting, or skip over the lore completely? Don’t feel bad about it! You can always introduce new elements later, and if it’s good enough for Gygax, it’s good enough for you. Even if you use the gods of Asgard and Olypmus in your world, they will still be defined by your fiction, not the myths and legends of our world. (I would, however, avoid real-life religions: apart from running the risk of offending someone, it’s also jarring, and potentially breaks the immersion in a fantasy setting.)

Whatever model of divinity you go with, you should probably think about your answers to some of the questions below.

  • Are the gods all powerful, or are there limits to their divinity?
  • What do they know that mortals do not?
  • How did they become gods? Is it possible to ascend to godhood or give it up? Can divinity be stolen or earned?
  • Do they need worshippers? Why do mortals worship them? Out of love? Fear? Gratitude?
  • Are the gods benevolent, hostile, or indifferent? Are they active or distant?
  • Where do they reside? Why do they live there? Can mortals reach them?
  • Can they die? If so, how?

In my current campaign, which started as a dark fantasy one-shot, the gods are almost forgotten: they slumber in distant worlds beyond the prime material, and the churches and cults that do exist are both corrupt and corrupting. Yet there are occasional glimpses of divine power: an answered prayer, perhaps, or an ancient artifact. It’s a story thread I plan to take further.

And no religion, too

Finally: there’s nothing wrong with a godless campaign setting.

‘Blasphemy!’ Really? Let’s take an example of how it might work.

Image result for aeris gainsborough

Meet Aerith Gainsborough (originally transliterated as ‘Aeris’). If that name sounds familiar, it’s probably because you played Final Fantasy VII. Aeris is never given a class in the game, but she is clearly part of the white mage tradition within the Final Fantasy franchise. She has high magic stats, fights with rods and staves, and her special abilities (‘limit breaks’) heal the party. In D&D, she would probably be a healing-domain cleric. She even grows flowers in a church. Yet there is no organized religion in the world of Final Fantasy VII. Neither are there deities, only ‘the Planet’ and a mysterious, ethereal substance called ‘Lifestream’.

To me, Final Fantasy VII is a really neat example of how you can have divine magic without deities. Don’t feel beholden to what has gone before: make your gods unique.

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How Medieval is D&D?

In my previous post, I examined the origins of the 5th edition Monster Manual and concluded that D&D was much less ‘European’ than might be supposed. Of the 215 monsters I looked at, around half, maybe more, originated elsewhere, and many, perhaps a third, were an invention of the game itself.

I see this claim online fairly frequently: that D&D is at its heart a medieval European fantasy. So, having looked at what we might call the geographic origins of the game, I thought I would have a closer look at its historical sources. Is it as medieval as people think?

As with last week, a few provisos. It bears repeating: this is a blog post, not scholarship. It is not going to be exhaustive. It is not going to be rigorously scientific. Please unclench before you take me to task. In terms of my own academic background, I have a reasonably good degree in Old and Middle English literature from a reasonably good university, but I do not claim to be an expert and would be more than happy to take on board constructive criticism. For my own sanity, I will be focusing again on the core rulebooks of 5th edition D&D, specifically the Player’s Handbook. For what it’s worth, though, I don’t think the edition matters that much: the mechanics may be different, but when it comes to the fundamentals, there’s a huge degree of crossover. But hey, if you disagree, I’ll read your blog on it.

The term ‘medieval’ is fraught with problems. It is often erroneously depicted almost as a kind of ‘dark age’ between classical civilization and the Renaissance – a ‘Middle Age’ – and this is horribly unfair. And what a huge generalization, too: this is a period of almost 1,000 years! Focusing on a ‘middle period’ between the fall of Rome and the (European) Renaissance also encourages us to adopt an unhelpfully eurocentric lens. There was a medieval world outside Europe, and Europe engaged with it.

For the purposes of this article, I am looking at the time period from around the end of the 5th century to the end of the 15th century. But even this is arbitrary. People didn’t go to bed one night in the Middle Ages and wake up in the Renaissance.

I’m going to focus on three main chapters: races, classes (which, by extension, considers spell lists to some extent), and equipment.

Races

I excluded Player’s Handbook races from my post last week on the basis that none of the peoples therein are featured in the 5th edition Monster Manual. Some commenters on Reddit pointed out that dwarves and elves (and so half-elves, too) are European in origin, which is quite true. Both are found in Old and Middle English, in medieval German, and in Old Norse, and are therefore perfectly medieval. Tieflings, too, are more medieval than you might think. The name itself is an invention for D&D, constructed from German tief and -ling (‘deep’ and ‘offspring’), but the concept of humans with demonic ancestry is found in medieval stories. Merlin, in some stories, is considered a cambion. I would give this one a pass.

Halflings, however, are more dubious. They are clearly based primarily on Tolkien’s hobbits, and hobbits were more or less a creation of Tolkien himself. The same goes for orcs (and therefore half-orcs). While they are mentioned in Beowulf, the word used there, orcneas, probably meant something closer to ‘evil spirits’. Tolkien himself said that he revived the word ‘only because of its phonetic suitability’: his orcs, and therefore the orcs of D&D, are not particularly medieval at all.

What about gnomes? Sorry: not medieval at all. The original Latin term term, gnomus, originates in Paracelsus in the 16th century, and the word is first attested in English in the early 18th century. Renaissance at best. Their characterization as cunning inventors is probably Victorian.

Overall, then, the ancestries of D&D are pretty medieval in origin, and always have been. Of course, once you go beyond the core rulebooks, this breaks down considerably (viz leonin, tortles, and aarakocra, among many, many others).

Character classes

Let’s get one thing out the way. None of the D&D classes are realistic. Not one. Not the barbarian, not the fighter, not the rogue. They are a product of fantasy. All of them. By 20th level, they are essentially superheroes. Trying to compare them to real-life medieval figures is a dead end.

However: we can examine the extent to which they resemble medieval fiction. Are wizards much like the ‘magicians’ of medieval romance, for example? Or was Merlin more of a druid or a warlock? How much are bards like the Pied Piper of Hamelin? Those sorts of questions.

  • The concept of an uncivilized or primitive warrior can be found the world and throughout history, but the D&D barbarian is clearly based primarily on Conan the Barbarian and pulp. That said, the barbarian’s rage feature evokes the berserkr of Old Norse sagas and poetry.
  • The bard is pretty medieval, taking inspiration from characters such as the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Will Scarlet, and Taliesin, as well as the Viking skalds. The spell list doesn’t really fit with the way magic is conceptualized in medieval stories, though, and it would probably be pretty limited and rather boring if it did.
  • It’s hard to say where clerics come from exactly. OD&D was pretty brief, saying in essence that they were a mix of ‘fighting-men and magic-users’. While they bear some resemblance to medieval crusaders like the Knights Templar, their ability to turn undead is more reminiscent of B-movie vampire-hunters like Van Helsing.
  • Real-life druids were religious leaders in ancient Celtic cultures. While they appear as sorcerers in some medieval Irish and Welsh stories (most notably the Táin Bó Cúailnge), they were essentially extinct by the time Christianization was complete. Still, their signature wild shape feature recalls the shapeshifting abilities of Merlin, so in some ways they fit the mould of a medieval magician rather well. They wouldn’t have wielded scimitars or worshipped trees, though.
  • Fighters get a pass for being medieval, but only because they are so completely generic. Warriors are more or less universal.
  • The monk class was probably created either by Dave Arneson, one of the co-creators of D&D, or Brian Blume, one of the early game designers and a huge fan of kung fu. Gary Gygax also claimed that the class was inspired by The Destroyer (the Remo Williams series). Shaolin monks certainly practised martial arts in the Sui and Tang dynasties, but from the 8th century to the 15th – ie, most of the European Middle Ages – there is no evidence of Shaolin monks participating in combat.
  • The paladin class is largely based on the character of Holger Carlson in Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions, which in itself is drawn on the twelve legendary knights of Charlemagne. The knight-errant is very much a figure of medieval romance: historically accurate, no, but culturally of its time? Very much so.
  • The ranger is based on Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. Like fighters, though, hunters and woodsmen are fairly universal. Artemis and Orion would fit the bill, as would Robin Hood and Jack the Giant Killer, two medieval legends. The spellcasting, though: that’s D&D through and through.
  • Regarding the rogue (then ‘thief’), Gygax stressed the influence of Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever and Roger Zelazny’s Shadowjack. The 2nd edition AD&D Player’s Handbook gave examples of thieves such as Reynard the Fox, Puck, and Ali Baba. And thieves, like warriors, are essentially universal.
  • The sorcerer was new to 3rd edition D&D, where it was essentially a variant wizard (previously called ‘mages’ or just ‘magic-users’). It was felt that the latest fantasy fiction made Vancian magic seem outdated. Regardless, neither wizards nor sorcerers have much in common with the magicians of medieval romance. Merlin’s powers revolve primarily around shapeshifting and prophecy, for example, not fireballs and magic missiles. Medieval in name only.
  • Finally, what about the newest of the core classes, the warlock? The pact of the fey is in some ways closer to the medieval concept of magic than either the sorcerer or the wizard. Infernal pacts, too, are thematically appropriate, as witches and warlocks were feared for their deals with the devil, and as I mentioned above, Merlin himself was depicted as a cambion in some stories. Eldritch blast, though, is again rather flashy for medieval magic, and the Great Old One stuff is clearly Lovecraftian in flavour.    

How medieval is this, on average? I would argue ‘somewhat medieval’ at best. Sure, you could construct a fairly ‘medieval’ party with a fighter, a rogue, and a paladin, with maybe a druid or a ranger thrown in, but that’s being selective. You could just as easily create a party consisting of a monk, a wizard or a sorcerer, and a bard or a cleric, and it wouldn’t be particularly medieval at all.

I’m going to skip Chapter 4 (Personality and Background) and move onto Equipment.

Arms, Armour, and Equipment

Am I going to dissect every item in the Player’s Handbook to evaluate how medieval it is? Hell no, because that would be about as interesting for me as it would be for you. Generally speaking, the D&D equipment list is pretty medieval. However, a few highlights:

  • Studded leather is not a historical term. Gygax was presumably thinking of brigandine or jack of plate. Chainmail, too, is something of a neologism, and this armour would have been called a hauberk, a byrnie, or simply ‘mail’.
  • Full plate arrived pretty late in the medieval period and was really more of a Renaissance armour. Its association with ‘knights in shining armour’ is largely the result of 16th-century jousting armour.
  • Overall, the weapons table is reasonably medieval. Like plate armour, though, the greatsword (which, confusingly, was probably referred to as a longsword) was really more of a Renaissance thing, the rapier even more so. The trident, conversely, was really a pre-medieval weapon, famously used in the hands of Roman gladiators. The hand crossbow is mostly a creation of fantasy.
  • The biggest issue with the weapons table is not so much what is included but what is missing. One word: guns! This is a long-standing and enduring convention of ‘medieval’ fantasy, but it is still rather bizarre. Europeans had knowledge of gunpowder from as early as the 1200s, and handheld firearms were starting to be used from the 1300s, yet they are usually presented in D&D as an optional rule in the DMG. If you really want to be authentically medieval, then add guns.
  • What about adventuring gear? This is a long old list, and much of it is fine, even for a purist. The biggest exception is probably the spyglass, as telescopes were not invented until the 17th century. The word backpack is anachronistic (20th century), but there would have been shoulderbags in the medieval period that fulfilled the same purpose.
  • And musical instruments? Again, a pretty medieval list. The viol was maybe a bit late, more Renaissance, but that’s splitting hairs.

Overall, D&D’s approach to equipment is pretty medieval, if you overlook a few specific items and don’t ask too many questions about where the guns are.

From a medieval point of view, though, there’s one massively fundamental problem with the D&D approach to equipment, and it’s this: D&D is capitalist! Or at the very least, it is a cash-based economy where feudalism and manorialism are conspicuously absent. There is a great post on this at Blog of Holding. As Paul Hughes put it, D&D is in essence ‘a swords-and-sorcery world, empty of government, where anyone can pick up a sword, become a hero, and live the American dream.’

Conclusions

Image result for D&D 5e

The big question, then: is D&D medieval? My view: eh, not really. Sure, it has many, many medieval elements. But it is hardly purist, and some of the most iconic D&D elements like wizards, clerics, full plate, and greatswords, are not especially medieval at all. The game draws on pulp, classical mythology, Renaissance swashbuckling, and of course, modern fantasy fiction. Many of the monsters of D&D, as I wrote about last week, are not particularly medieval either.

Obsessing over D&D’s medievalism is a creative dead-end. It probably won’t lead to better fiction or better gameplay. It’s not particularly imaginative. In fact, it’s rather limiting. D&D is fantasy, not history, and this has always been the case. Even if the game’s roots lie in historical wargaming, the game we play now is something completely different.

Image result for combat wheelchair ruined D&D

Finally, it is interesting (and worrying) to reflect on where this call for medievalism comes from. There are gatekeepers on Reddit and Twitter who proclaim that monks have no place in D&D because they are not ‘medieval European’. I don’t see them calling to get rid of wizards, though, or the creatures from Greek mythology, or mummies, or zombies, or the hundreds of monsters that D&D has invented for the game. Why is that? Could it be that there is another, more troubling reason for singling out the only ‘Asian’ character class for criticism? And there are D&D players on Twitter who defend the use of racism and slavery in their games – ‘because it’s medieval’ – or get upset about the combat wheelchair, for the opposite reason. I don’t see them calling for the inclusion of firearms in the core rules. Neither are they proposing that we should adopt a feudal, manorial economy in our games instead of a free market based on gold pieces. Not with the same vociferousness, anyway. And they don’t have any problems with a knight in full plate mowing down orcs with a greatsword, even though it’s not much more medieval than a hobbit parachuting into battle while firing flintlock pistols.

As a hill to die on, it all looks a bit silly, not least because these calls for medieval realism are often founded on totally inaccurate assumptions about the realities of the medieval world. But one has to wonder whether it was ever really about ‘medievalism’ in the first place, or whether this has always been a figleaf for something much more problematic.

Medieval fantasy is inherently romanticized and backward-looking: it harks back to a mythical age of knights, castles, dragons and what have you. But it’s fantasy first. And if ‘medieval’ for you is a byword for a world which is white, male, ableist, and so on – if that’s important to you, if that defines your ‘fantasy’ – then you should maybe stop using medievalism as an excuse for your own prejudices. The game moves on. Maybe you should, too.

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Where Do D&D Monsters Come From?

There are some quite contentious claims out there about the origins of D&D’s creature catalogue. Was D&D inspired primarily by Tolkien and European folklore, for example, or was it more international? How many monsters did Gary Gygax invent, and how many are based on real-life mythologies?

I decided to do some research. For the sake of brevity (and my own sanity), I have restricted myself to the monsters listed in the 5th edition Monster Manual. I ignored the generic NPCs in Appendix B and the real-life fauna of Appendix A (including dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures like the sabre-toothed tiger). I also chose to ignore:

  • giant versions of real-life fauna (unless they have a specific literary origin somewhere);
  • swarms (unless they refer to creatures without stats elsewhere, like rotgrubs);
  • animated versions of real-life things (like flying swords and awakened shrubs);
  • ‘demicreatures’ like half-ogres and half-dragons;
  • juvenile or mature versions of the same creature (eg, the young remorhaz);
  • and, in general, subtypes of the same creature (eg, abominable yetis, grick alphas, different types of zombie, and so on).

Doing so gave me a list of 215 creatures to research.

A couple of disclaimers. Number one: this is a blog post, not scholarship. I may have made some mistakes here. In fact, I almost certainly have. By all means let me know in the comments! Number two: it is impossible to be completely scientific with such an exercise. Some monsters have very specific origins, like the couatl and the yeti. For others, pinning down an exact source is liking trying to decide who invented hummus. For example, many of the monsters that came to D&D via Tolkien were themselves based on other mythologies. [Update: I would also add a third disclaimer: this post is not exhaustive! I would go mad trying to write about every single one of the 215 creatures, so please accept my apologies for not doing so.]

I referred to a number of sources in making this but was particularly indebted to u/phdemented on Reddit. Do check out their posts for more detail!

Without further ado . . .

French (2)

There might not be many French creatures in the Monster Manual, but at least they can claim to have given D&D its most fearsome foe. The tarrasque (one ‘r’ in the original) is a Provençal legend about a fearsome dragon-like hybrid. The D&D tarrasque, however, is actually much closer to a Godzilla-esque kaiju. The word ogre is also French, and has other cognates in D&D like ‘Orcus’ and ‘orc’.

Update: there is some debate as to where gargoyles (‘gargouilles’) belong here. I include them further down, since the architectural feature pre-dates the mythological creature, but it’s a fair claim!

Roman (2)

Lemures (devil fodder in D&D) were restless, malignant spirits in Roman mythology. Manes (demon fodder) were also di inferi or ‘those who dwell below’, but according to St Augustine, where Lemures were generally bad souls, it was uncertain whether Manes ‘deserve well or ill’.

German/Central Europe (3)

Given the cultural influence of the Brothers Grimm, I was surprised how few D&D creatures could truly be traced back to German origins. I could only pin down three: the kobold (which is related to the colour cobalt), the imp, and the mephit (which was essentially just another form of imp, originally). Doppelgangers are not dissimilar to the changelings of Nordic and Germanic stories, but similar changelings appear in other cultures.

Unique origins (3)

The couatl is the only creature I could find with a Mesoamerican origin. The clay golem originated in Jewish folklore. Zombies come from the traditions of Haiti, which may in turn have roots in west or central Africa.

Egyptian (3 4)

Although mummified corpses have been found on every continent, the D&D mummy is clearly based on those of ancient Egypt. The jackalwere and the the androsphinx are also Egyptian in origin. (Curiously, the sphinx also existed in ancient Greece, but there it was usually a woman, not a man.) Update: while griffons appear in ancient Greek texts, their origins lie in Egypt and Iran.

East Asian (5)

The dragon turtle (Lóngguī) is a legendary Chinese creature that combines two of the four celestial animals of Chinese mythology. The gold dragon was also based on Chinese dragons. Kenku and oni, meanwhile, have their origins in Japanese mythology.

One curiosity here is the arcanaloth. @DeerServas on Twitter suggested that this may have come from The Book of Imaginary Beings where it is listed as ‘the Chinese Fox’. This may in turn have come from the Japanese stories of kitsune. [Update: another possible origin is the French stories of Reynard the Fox. We might not be able to find a true source for this one!]

Arabic, Islamic, and Persian (6)

The djinni, efreeti, ghoul, manticore, marid, and roc all come from one or more of these sources. (The term ‘efreeti’ is actually a mistake, as Keith Ammann helpfully points out, and we should probably call them ‘efreets’.) Curiously, the last of the four genie, the dao or earth genie, is an invention for D&D. Presumably the original game designers wanted one genie for each of the four elements. Update: the griffon probably belongs here or in the Egypt category, too.

Indian and South Asian (6)

Devas, nagas, and rakshasas appear in both Hindu and Buddhist mythologies. Mariliths, though an invention of D&D, bear a strong resemblance to Hindu and Buddhist demons, and in a similar vein, weretigers closely resemble rakshasas. Finally, yetis are a cryptid from the Himalayas.

Toys (6)

Bulettes.jpg

Seriously? Yes! Six of the most iconic D&D monsters – the bulette, carrion crawler, owlbear, purple worm, rust monster, and umber hulk – were invented by Gary Gygax based on a bag of cheap plastic toys.

English (6)

Several, including bugbears, duergar, and will-o’-wisps. Hobgoblins can be found in English and Scottish stories. Cloud giants were inspired by the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. The basilisk and the cockatrice have a shared origin (and indeed, the terms were almost interchangeable).

Occultism (6)

Several ‘outsiders’ like the azer, barbed devil, barlgura, bearded devil, planetar, and solar have their origins in occult texts like the Ars Goetia (17th century) and Lewis Spence’s An Encyclopedia of Occultism (1920).

Real world (6)

As I wrote at the outset, I tried to rule out real-world monsters from this research, but a few special cases are worth mentioning. The axe beak (Phorusrhacidae) and the dire wolf (Aenocyon dirus) both have prehistoric analogues. The quipper is essentially a piranha. The salamander of legend is rooted in the exaggerated stories about the amphibian of the same name. Gargoyles and scarecrows are both objects in real life.

Norse/Nordic/Scandinavian (6 7)

I was surprised by how few of the monsters in the Monster Manual were drawn directly from Norse mythology. From what I could find, only the drow, ettin, fire giant, frost giant, and kraken are truly Scandinavian in origin. [Update: the wights of Tolkien are inspired by draugr, which also feature in the video game Skyrim.] Despite the name, D&D trolls are really not much like the trolls of Norse mythology at all: along with the paladin class and the D&D aligment system, they are mainly indebted to Poul Anderson’s novel, Three Hearts and Three Lions.

Scottish, Irish, and Celtic folklore (7)

The banshee and the fomorian are Irish in origin (the name ‘Balor’ was in fact the name of a fomorian originally), while behirs and green hags (also called shellycoats) are Scottish. Merrow are Scottish and Irish. Pixies are Celtic and sprites are Cornish.

European folklore (7 8)

A fair few here: the goblin, the night hag, the nightmare, the revenant, and the werewolf (which goes back to ancient Greece and Rome). The cambion, too, is a European creation. Shakespeare’s Caliban was a cambion.

Update: although dragons are fairly universal and found it many, many cultures worldwide, D&D’s dragons are clearly modelled after European types (the gold dragon being an exception). Curiously, though, and this is something Tolkien himself points out in Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, dragons are actually rare in European literature, and there are only a few that are significant.

Tolkien (9 8)

For many years, Gary Gygax downplayed how much D&D borrowed from Tolkien’s work. Possibly for legal reasons: the threat of copyright action from the Tolkien estate prompted D&D to stop using terms like ‘balrog’, ‘ent’, and ‘hobbit’. Nevertheless, Tolkien was clearly a huge influence on the early game, and it’s primarily from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit that we get creatures like balors, giant eagles, orcs, treants, wights, worgs, and wraiths. [Correction: wights are based on draugr from Norse mythology, so I have moved them there.] While I wouldn’t go so far as to put them in this category, the werebear is reminiscent of Beorn from The Hobbit, and red dragons closely resemble Smaug. Goblins and stone giants are also extremely Tolkienesque, despite appearing in other cultures and traditions.

Universal/multi-origin (13 12)

Many of the creatures in the Monster Manual have no single origin and appear around the world in various forms. These include: dragons, ghosts, hell hounds, hill giants, iron golems, lizardfolk, lycanthropes, merfolk, skeletons, stone golems, unicorns, vampires, and wyverns. They are, in essence, ‘citizens of the world’. Claims can be made for some of them – unicorns may have originated in the Indus Valley Civilization, possibly as a representation of aurochs – but they are not uncontentious, and there are often conflicting claims elsewhere. Vampires, for example, can be found in almost all cultures in some form or another, including Asia, Africa, the Americas, and ancient Mesopotamia.

Works of fiction beside Tolkien (14)

A long list! Horned devils come from Dante (the lazy Malebranche of the Divine Comedy); elementals, in their D&D form, seem to be inspired by the work of Michael Moorcock; flesh golems are clearly modelled on the Monster in Frankenstein; grimlocks are essentially the morlocks of The Time Machine.

And there are more: the demilich and the wererat resemble creatures in Fritz Leiber’s work; perytons seems to come from Jorge Luis Borges; the name gnoll may have come from Lord Dunsany’s The Book of Wonder: How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art upon the Gnoles Update: Gary Gygax himself attested that the gnoll was a mash-up of a gnome and a troll (!); and the grell seems to be based on the medusae of Jack Williamson’s Three from the Legion (1980) [Update: user on Reddit pointed out that grells appear to pre-date this source. Thank you, kinarism!]. Thri-kreen may have been modelled on the four-armed green martians in John Carter of Mars (1917), while liches can be found in the work of several 20th-century writers, including Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Howard, and Ambrose Bierce. Finally, displacer beasts, despite being considered the intellectual property of Wizards of the Coast, have an uncanny resemblance to the Coeurls of A E van Vogt.

Greek myth (18 17)

Here was perhaps my most interesting find. Once you exclude real-life fauna and creatures invented by the game itself, Greek mythology is the single biggest origin of 5e monsters.

The list is huge: centaurs, chimeras, cyclopes, dryads, empyreans (essentially titans), erinyes (the Furies), griffons, gynosphinxes, harpies, hydras, lamias, medusas, minotaurs, pegasi, and satyrs are all clearly taken from Greek myth. I would also add two more: the storm giant (which closely resemble Zeus) and the wereboar (which reminds us of Circe and the swine in the Odyssey). The hell hound and the iron golem, too, while not exact copies of any creatures in Greek mythology, do nonetheless bear a resemblance to Cerberus and Talos respectively.

One creature I excluded from this category, though, was the gorgon. Despite the name, they are not based on Greek myth! They have some similarities to the bulls of Colchis or Khalkotauroi, but their true origins seem to be Edward Topsell’s 1607 bestiary The Historie of Foure-Footed Beasts. In Greek mythology, the gorgons are the three snake-haired sisters: Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa.

Update (1 Feb): another creature I excluded from this list was the skeleton. ‘But Jason and the Argonauts!’ I hear you cry. Turns out, the Spartoi of Greek myth are simply warriors, and never described as skeletons. You can blame Harryhausen and his wonderful special effects for that one.

D&D (at least 20)

Another huge list: so many of the monsters of D&D seem to be an invention of the game itself. Many of the demons – for example, the glabrezu, hezrou, nalfeshnee, and quasit – came from the imagination of Gary Gygax: so, too, did blink dogs, various oozes, troglodytes, and the xorn. Other D&D creations include ankhegs, githyanki (a name which came from George R R Martin), mind flayers, modrons, twig blights, and the iconic beholder, although these did not necessarily come from Gygax. Flumphs and quaggoths were player created. These creatures may have never existed if it were not for D&D.

The winner: unknown! (at least 50)

And then there’s the rest! About a quarter of the monsters I looked at had unclear origins, and we might never know who created them. Like the list above, they may very well be a product of the game itself. Examples include dracoliches, driders, ettercaps, flumphs, gricks, mimics, myconids, otyughs, quaggoths, ropers, shambling mounds, and vrocks. Some may have real-life origins (the original ochre jelly art resembled a giant amoeba), and others may be nods to particular cultural references (ultroloths recall the stereotypical grey alien), but others are just a bit of a mystery.

Honourable mentions

Although none of the monsters in D&D are taken from Lovecraft directly, several are ‘Lovecraftian’ in form. These include aboleths, chuuls, ghasts, ghouls, gibbering mouthers, kuo-toa, mind flayers, and slaadi. Likewise, a number of creatures from the Monster Manual can be seen in similar forms in 20th-century pulp fiction. These include aarakocra (Flash Gordon), black puddings (The Blob), and the gelatinous cube.

Conclusions

I learned a lot from doing this. I was suprised by the extent to which it borrowed from Greek myth, for example, and how few creatures, comparatively, were Norse in origin. My research does seem to bear out the suggestion that D&D’s origins are heavily weighed towards Europe, however: the number of monsters from Asia, Africa, and the Americas is really quite small, with none that I could think of from Australia and Oceania. What struck me most of all, though, was the sheer plurality and inventiveness of the game’s sources, emphasizing, once again, that there is a place for all storytellers in the world of D&D.

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Tomb Raider in D&D

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

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

A few limitations

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

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

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

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

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

What are the solutions?

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

The world of Tomb Raider

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

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

Puzzles and exploration

Tomb of the Nine Gods | Forgotten Realms Wiki | Fandom

Wizards of the Coast

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

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

Combat

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

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

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

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

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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 ranged 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. How is your character linked 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.

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