Lean Into It

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Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden was released and Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything announced. TCE contains more character options including subclasses, group patrons, spells, artifacts and magic tattoos. It also has more optional rules and a section devoted to puzzles. I’m a sucker for options so I’m looking forward to it. Unfortunately there have been no new UA articles since last month.

Lean Into It
Let’s talk about owning a roll. Of course, there is owning the roll in the moment. Allowing it to happen without feeling anxious or being annoyed with it. It’s not always easy, but definitely a skill to strive for. Things won’t always go your way, that’s the nature of a dice driven game as well as life.

What I’m more referring to is owning a roll for the long term. Being invested in the outcome of a specific role to define your character. I think the best way to explain is to give an example.

The DM describes a chamber in which there is a mural depicting a multi-headed dragon subjugating humanoids. You know this is likely Tiamat, however you aren’t quite sure about your character. You ask the DM of your characters possible knowledge and they ask you to roll a history check. You roll a natural 20 and do an obligatory fist pump before revealing the final score on the roll to be a 24. After all, a 20 on a skill check doesn’t necessarily guarantee success. The DM gives you a quick narrative regarding Tiamat and her role in the world at large.

Now, you can take this for what it is, a piece of knowledge known at, seemingly, random. Perhaps it was something they heard about during a passing conversation with a bard or scholar. Reasonable, but not altogether interesting. On the other hand, maybe your character has had a lifelong obsession with dragons. At a young age they saw a drawing of a dragon or heard a story that triggered this love, forever fascinating them.

Now you have another quirk to your character. The party is now aware of the obsession with dragons. Naturally this adds a hook for the DM and provides some insight about the character for your party. Now there is an itch in the back of the collective minds of your companions. Maybe one of them manages to buy them a dragon egg as a present. Maybe your character starts collecting dragon related objects, finding it hard to resist keeping coin in their pocket when a magnificent dragon tapestry is found at the local merchant.

As a DM, if a player brought this to me I would be thrilled. I would definitely give them advantage on most dragon rolls from then on in, but also disadvantage when their obsession might creep into their minds. Evil laughter ensues.

Now, what about the reverse? A natural 1 can have implications as well, just as shallow or as deep. Let’s look at another example.

The DM describes the scene of a massacre. The scene is clearly ritualistic in nature with melted candles, skulls and a lectern to one side of the, now disarrayed, chairs. There are some strange fetishes that depict a lizard head with a spiked fringe, one found on each corpse. You ask to roll to see if your character has ever seen these fetishes or find anything familiar about the scene. The DM asks you to roll a religion check. A natural 1 with a bonus of nothing, your character hasn’t the slightest clue.

Now lean in… Your character knows this work. It must be Bahamut, the deceiver! The evil dragon who thwarts Tiamat at every corner. Now your companions may know that Bahamut is a just and good-aligned god, but you will hear none of it. Your aunt and uncle taught you the truth and there isn’t much that will shake this belief. They were devotees to Tiamat and quickly taught your character to understand the nature of Tiamat and Bahamut. Slowly their lies took root like a seed warping your mind into believing in such things. Your character knows that Bahamut’s greatest strength is his ability to make others think he is just and forgiving.

This example requires some investment on the side of your DM, but can work out great. See, now your character has this strangeness to them. No matter what anyone else says, Bahamut is evil. Who knows how this might play out, it will likely generates conflict between NPCs, other players and even your aunt and uncle.

Doing things like this can make a single roll spiral into something great. Obviously not every roll is a great story. It’s also not always easy to do so either, but, if you can, it can be wonderful thing.

The Encounter’s the Thing

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Not much has been announced save a new box set for Curse of Strahd.

The Encounter’s the Thing
An encounter can be many things, but, more or less, it’s simply a point at which the players get to interact with the world. This can be combat, exploration, social or any combination of those and other aspects of the game. I often wonder what makes it fun for different people. What combination will get everyone at the table excited about an encounter? The fact is everyone has those moments when they feel bored with an aspect of the game. It can be anything from your own mental state, to the DM running something you are not particularly interested in or perhaps, as the DM, you find your players staring vacantly when you are putting something in front of them that you believe should excite them. That said, let’s try to figure out what makes an encounter good or bad with my amazingly subjective opinions on the subject.

What makes an encounter bad? For me, an encounter is only bad if it’s not engaging to anyone. This could be the dungeon master vomiting lore to the players in an uninteresting way. This could be an encounter that makes the players feel absolutely powerless or annoyed with no payoff. This could even be a failed puzzle that was interesting at first, but quickly spiraled as the answers were too difficult to uncover or solve.

Personally, I generally dislike encounters with high CR fey creatures, especially as a player. It feels like most of the time when you encounter one they often feel too powerful to really challenge, but annoying or detrimental enough to want to. They often have that kind of devil’s bargain aspect to them where you have to really watch what you say and do. Usually not heeding that angers them or put yourself and your party into a bad situation that is difficult to get out of. After that it’s long sloggy combat encounters. Sometimes this can be by design, a kind of puzzle and the players are just not getting. Perhaps the glowing onyx jewel at the center of the room is making the zombies rise again at the 20 counter of initiative. Sometimes that can be frustrating, especially if the DM wants to be more standoffish about it.

On the flip side, what makes an encounter good? Well, it’s quite frankly the opposite. A good encounter is just simply engaging. Whether it has drama, humor, fun mechanics or anything in between. As long as it has meaning, it’s good. That doesn’t mean it has to be meaningful for everyone. Like good D&D etiquette suggests, you have to let the spotlight wax and wane on everyone or it can become stale for one or all.

So what do you think? Have any pet peeves that make for bad D&D encounters? Have some aspects that all of your favorites share?

A Dodecahedronal Encounter: The Pixiu
Trying something new this month. Going to include a random encounter, as the name suggests, when I have a good one to share. This will be an encounter I came up with myself or saw online that I thought warranted being sharing. It will be accompanied by a short story, if applicable, then an explanation of how the encounter works. This month will be an encounter with a pixiu, something of my own design.

The party is making their way through the Denwyc Timberlands. The elven Ranger in the lead, pathfinding the safest route through the forest. To the rear the dwarven Cleric keeps an ever watchful eye on his flock and beyond, ensuring nothing was tracking them. In between the party lend weary eyes while trying to remain as quiet as possible. This area of the forest is known to be far more dangerous, but makes for a much faster trip. A necessary trade as speed is currently of importance for their current endeavor.

The Ranger makes a signal to stop and the group waits watchfully as she and the Rogue investigate the faint noise she heard to the east. They make their way to encounter a strange levitating beast in a clearing. It has the shape of a lion with an almost humanoid quality to its face and small, clearly ineffectual, wings that flapped slowly as it moved. The stylized stone-like face is adorned with gaudy gems as jewelry and facets, a single fist sized ruby inset into it’s forehead and eyes like pools of quicksilver.

They gather the party to discuss what they saw and after some debate decide to greet the creature instead of ambush it. The Knight leads the party to greet the creature that is happily humming a pleasant tune. Their arrival, at first, does not seem to garner it’s attention. After a moment, however, it looks to them.

“Well met, weary travelers,” it says in a nearly booming, but pleasant voice as it lands on the ground facing them.

Before anyone could greet the creature back the Cleric stepped forward and cast a spell at the beast. It seemed to fizzle on the creature’s skin. Though drawing it’s attention, the creature seemed to take the attempt in stride.

“Very wise, my bearded friend. Strange creatures in the woods always warrant caution. What brings you here today?”

The group looked to each other, trying to figure out what to say when the Knight stepped forward once again. He explained that they were traveling through the woods to further their quest to the north.

“Ahh, the noble quest. That reminds me of a tale I once heard,” it said in reply, a smile beaming across its face.

It began to tell an entertaining tale that went on for several minutes. All the while the party began to see a strange relevance to the quest at hand. Close the end the Wizard gasped, remembering a detail they had missed a few days earlier. He quickly conferred with his party and they come to revelation. The Wizard turned to the creature and asked how he chose a story so pertinent to their quest.

“It seems to be a happy accident my fair scholar. I am as perplexed as you all, but equally thrilled it was useful to you.”

A few remained unconvinced, but none threatened or questioned the beast. They continued their conversation in relative privacy as the creature began to almost frolic in the space, humming the same tune once again. After a few moments they turned to face it once more.

“Have you come to a consensus?”

They confirmed and asked it what it was doing here.

“Traveling. I found this fine spot and decided to rest a bit and lift my own spirits with a tune,” it said happily. It added, as a quick afterthought, “you know what brings spirits even higher?”

There was a pause before the Knight asked what it was.

“Stories, my newfound friends. Trade me a good story and I will grant you luck on your endeavors for a time.”

They questioned the meaning behind the words and the creature told them things would work out better for them for a time, relative to the quality of the story they told. The Rogue took little convincing and spun a tale about when he nearly pulled off an entire endeavor by himself after his companions were arrested.

“That was quite the tale! A quality addition to my expansive collection. I shall spin this tale the next time I meet some delightful strangers such as yourselves. You have my blessing!”

The creature gleefully danced around and seemed to cast a spell on the rogue who saw no ill effects. Convinced the knight stepped up and told a story about his time as a boy serving his former lord. The quality of the tale was high but it was quite dour.

“I see, the life of a knight must be trying,” the creature replied flatly.

The Knight looked dejected as the Wizard stood forth and told the story of how they came upon her staff.

“Excellent! Camaraderie, danger and triumph. You have my blessing.”

The Ranger and Cleric seemed uninterested in sharing a story and they parted the creature on good terms and continued their trek north.

A week later they had completed their task to great success and in no small part due to the Rogue and Wizard.  The Knight found himself sharing drinks with the rogue a few nights later.

“I never knew you used a dragon’s breath elixir when we were captured, that was inspired,” he remarked.

“What?” the Rogue replied, confused.

The Knight reminded him of the story. The Rogue looked at him, still confused. The Knight grew concerned but thought it may have been the drink vexing his mind.

The next morning he asked again, to the same reaction. They soon discovered the Rogue and Wizard had no memory of the stories they shared with the beast.

“You should pay more attention to the creature’s words. It traded those stories, they are the creature’s now,” said the Ranger as the Cleric nodded solemnly in agreement.

This party had met a Pixiu, my take on a mythological creature from Chinese folklore. In folklore it is associated with wealth while my take on the it borrows the look, name and connection to wealth in appearance with little else in common.

A pixiu can be encountered anywhere, peaceful forests, blazing deserts or barren lands consumed by necromantic energies. They seem to be immune to such magical effects and are often found happily humming a strange tune that you would be hard pressed to find unpleasant. They are generally jolly beings that love stories, greeting the people they come across with a big smile and a welcoming demeanor. They will often insist on telling the players a story before any lengthy conversation can occur. The story is usually related to a quest in some manner, perhaps providing a clue they had previously missed. Of course this may add to the enigmatic nature as the players might wonder why the creature would tell such a poignant tale.

So long as the players remain friendly to the creature it will offer them a trade. A blessing in exchange for a story. The nature and power of the blessing correlates to it’s enjoyment of the story told. This is completely subjective to the creature as, although its demeanor may always be jolly, they do have distinct personalities and each love different stories. Some prefer tales of conquest and war, others romantic tales, some may enjoy tales with strong morals and still others prefer tales of a flattering nature. What the players will not know, and may never even find out is that the exchange has a more literal nature than they might expect. Once they are blessed they forget the story, forever. Even if they relearn the story it grows hazy for them after a few days and is lost again soon after.

This strange exchange has led those who know of the creature to have a hard time classifying it as benevolent or malevolent. While the exchange is objectively favorable to the storyteller, many would argue losing a story is akin to losing a part of oneself. Especially if the story is deeply personal.

Mechanically, a pixiu is a fey creature as it’s nature lends itself to. While I never thought of a stat block for them, they would likely have spell immunity similar to a rakshasa and high defensive stats. It would likely not attack saving a petrifying gaze before attempting to escape with spells like misty step, dimension door or teleport. I would estimate their CR to around 10 to 14, leaning lower.

The blessing given to the player could be anything, but in my world pixiu are creatures of Taekei, the god of luck. As such when the players successfully give them a story they gain a few luck points that they can keep until they use them. The number depends on how entertained the creature was by their story.

It’s Okay to be Cliche

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The Huey Lewis

Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden was announced last month at D&D Live 2020. It’s an adventure for 1-12 set in, well, Icewind Dale. I have no strong opinions on it one way or another, save that the art of the owlbearram looks pretty badass. That said, Icewind Dale was my very first foray into anything officially D&D. Cool story? I know, bro.

Unearthed Arcana revisited the Revived subclass for rogues and rebranded it as the Phantom. It’s a bit more broadly appealing than a character risen from the dead. It instead deals with someone who has unlocked the secret of death and has a new found mastery of negative energy and the abilities that might unlock.

There is also the Genie patron for warlocks, which replaces the Noble Genie. It adds more flavor with the expanded spell list allowing you to choose between general genie, dao, djinni, madrid or efreeti as set options. Overall the features are a bit more powerful and fit the theme well.  The changes here are not groundbreaking, just better.

Lastly, the Order of the Scribe replaces the Archivist for wizards. It took me a while to realize (and to read it in the actual UA article), that the original Archivist was actually an artificer subclass. It’s a big change in that regard, but has some neat ideas. The one that bugs me more than anything is the ability to change spell damage types. This should be something most spellcasters, if not all, can do at some point. I always felt it was rather limiting making things like fireball limited to just fire damage, especially if all the personal wants is a big boom boom with a spherical shape. Granted, there could be balance issues given that fire is a very commonly resisted element, but that’s a small balance type that only matters in a very typical play (likely AL). If I want to run a campaign in the plane of fire, I don’t want my players to be crippled by something so silly… or do I?

It’s Okay to be Cliche

It is, it really is. There is nothing inherently wrong with playing a cliche or tropey character. Sometimes it’s fun to be the brooding rogue who grew up on the streets, having to steal for his or her next meal. It’s fun to play the absentminded old wizard with a steepled hat, a robe and a crooked staff. Fuck, play the hell out of that stupid raging barbarian who barely knows his ass from a top hat. Hell it’s even fun to play the heroes rescuing the prince or princess from the evil dragon in those mountains and it’s great to have to overcome the evil necromancer coming to raid the lands.

While I don’t watch much of Matt Coleville’s content anymore, he has tons of good advice for the hobby, keeping in mind it’s largely relating to DMing. One of the baddies he likes to run is Kalarel the Vile, Scion of Orcus (bonus points if you can hear him saying it in your head). This character is an evil necromancer who worships, as the name would suggest, Orcus. He is simply evil, no two ways about it. He twirls his mustache, he kicks puppies, he is what he is, evil. While this may make for some lame D&D after you have done it too frequently, at times, it’s all you need. Just a bad guy, you know is bad. Whatever happens, your goal is clear, this person must be dealt with.

Now, what happens between where you start and when the final confrontation occurs should be the far more interesting part. That’s where you can easily put in tragic characters, new friends, old enemies, enemies who become friends and vice versa. That time can allow the DM to consider new ideas for this antagonist, increasing the complexity of the character, even if it’s only slightly. The same goes for players. Playing out the cliche character for a while can let you think of how this person got this way and why. To that end, the people in your party and NPCs you meet can change your character. This can occur for the villain too. The players may thwart one of their early plots which causes them, at the very least, annoyance. To that end they seek new allies and perhaps they find something they didn’t expect, altering them for the rest of the campaign.

There are plenty of games and stories where this is true and we don’t think less of them. It’s been 20 years since Final Fantasy IX was released and I’ve been replaying it. It’s a great game and very cliche, especially at the beginning. There’s the noble, if not dopey, knight whose only goal is to protect the princess without nearly any thoughts of his own. There’s the naive princess, whose beauty is known throughout the land. There’s the typical rogue thief who hits on all the girls and the cliches don’t stop much from there. That said, it’s easily my favorite Final Fantasy. I don’t know if it’s because of the simplicity of the story or in spite of it, but I don’t think any less of it because of those cliches. After all, as the saying goes, there are only seven stories.

Of course, cliches can be annoying, but they are comforting in a way. Something we can easily identify without much thought. Now, does that mean you want that every time? No, not at all. Sometimes you want to see a happy go lucky rogue who worships the sun god and refuses to steal from anyone. Sometimes you want the thoughtful barbarian who realizes that ‘Mongo only pawn in game of life.’ 

That said, don’t ever feel obliged to play something you don’t like because your idea is cliche. Anyone who gives you shit about that is just being shitty.

That said, you guys (my clanmates) can play a dwarf once in a while that isn’t a blacksmithing, beer-swilling, bull-headed, scottish accented, beard toting, hammer wielding dwarf for once if your damn lives. I mean, maybe they enjoy woodworking with a glass of fine wine while debating the pros and cons of fine subterranean cuisine with their long time elf-friend… ya know?

Redshirts or Sidekicks?

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Caves & Lizards
Not much has happened since my last post save the release of a revised version of the psionic classes previously seen several months ago. That said, the changes to all three of those subclasses were quite good in my opinion. They all now share a psionic talent die which decreases if you roll well or use certain abilities and increases if you roll poorly. It’s a pretty dynamic and engaging mechanic if you ask me. The Soulknife in particular has some great new features including the ability to teleport, create telepathic links, invisibility and eventually the ability to stun your foes for a turn.

Red Shirts and Recurring Characters
In the last game I ran we only had two players. I wish we had more, but it is what it is. I took this in stride and came up with a plan. I set in front of the characters a few options for something akin to guilds. Just like most settings there are many organizations they could find for support and work and each one would offer them different kinds of tasks. To that end I had a selection of characters they could hire or cooperate with by sharing profits. I had created eleven characters whose availability depended on which faction they went to. I had a few that shared mechanics and names, but whose personality would differ depending on their choice. Their most immediate options were the Edgewalkers, a pseudo adventuring and monster hunting guild, or the Shadowpads, a criminal syndicate. One of the dynamic characters I had ready was a yuan-ti character named Nephtys who, if they went to the syndicate, would have been a ruthless mercenary. However, because they ended up dealing with the Edgewalkers she was a kind and gentle hearted woman of struggling faith. In the end they joined forces with all the hirelings available (5) for a specific quest and, as it turns out, trolls are nasty to level 3 characters and poor Lester Shinbreaker, the NPC gnome barbarian, died a gruesome and tragic death.

My plan was to run them myself until the players gained a sort of rapport with them, at which point they would trust them enough to follow their orders and suggestions. At that point they were their character to use until the story changed that. They would always fall behind by a level and not be a true player character in terms of mechanics. I loosely followed the hireling rules that were put out in UA form a while back. My plan was to give them options at ASI levels that related to where they were in the story or relationship. So if they kept them at arm’s length their choices would be limited to a simple ASI and perhaps one very simple feat. If they had a better relationship or engaged with their story it would open up better options. Take Nephtys, who was a hybrid monk and paladin. If they got her to open up about her faith and convince her to pursue it she would get more paladin and cleric options and, if they pushed her away from it, she would gain more monk abilities. I even had a plan on a relationship feature that would give them a one round rage mechanic if their partner fell in combat or gain a small bonus if they were in visual proximity. Pretty sad I never got to use any of these things as they game fell apart the session before they would have gained full control over two of the NPCs they had befriended.

Anecdotes aside, hirelings and sidekicks are a strange beast. It was once a staple of early D&D. You used them to carry your gear or make merchant runs. Hell, your sidekick might be the only one to survive the dungeon and become your next character. That era, however, seems to be over. I don’t think I’ve seen or heard many games that deal with them at this point. Perhaps an occasional allied NPC, but nothing used by the players. To that point it feels unnecessary in 5e between the fact most games have plenty of players and the combat system generally makes higher numbers of PCs difficult to strike a balance between fair and challenging. 

In a game with limited players I could see the appeal, as it was in the game I ran. Even so it is a bit clunky and something I wouldn’t try with newer players to the game as keeping track of two characters can be cumbersome and confusing. Either way I can see using it in a limited fashion or something like a large scale battle. Giving at best vague orders for them to follow and perhaps rolling a few die to determine their success or failure, essentially becoming a skill. And why wouldn’t it be? You might say this falls into the realm of persuasion or intimidation, but not precisely. Charisma would largely play a role, but perhaps it’s a distinct skill of it’s own.

We’ll call it leadership and say by default it would be a charisma roll, but alternatively you could use almost any stat. The physical ones could reflect leading by example. Nimbly taking out your foes, crushing your enemies and seeing them driven before you as you stand beaten, bruised, armor dented showing your minions that it can be done against all odds. Obviously appealing to intellect or showing wisdom can lend to those attributes as well.

Perhaps, however, it’s more simple. We go straight back to the old days. Your hirelings are just your minions who do manual labor, carry your stuff and make supply runs. You keep them out of danger, give them their own horses and items befitting of their job for you. Maybe if you lean more towards the evil side of the alignment. You keep one around to check for traps or ambushes and don’t bother equipping them, seeing them as cannon fodder for your machinations.

Sidekicks could be a different beast all together, perhaps you don’t take them with you often and simply train them for their own adventures. This would go back to that leadership skill. They might go out, be successful and bring you back some loot. Maybe they are captured, bringing an urgency to rescuing them on some sort of sidequest. It might even be trivial for you and your companions, but your sidekick was nearly killed. What comes of that? What if it’s not true and your enemies convert them to their cause and lure you into a trap. Let’s say you survive,  is there a path of redemption for your former sidekick?

So are hirelings and sidekicks useful? Are they worth the effort for the player and DM? I think, obviously, it all depends on your game and how you run it. Epic dungeon crawl where leaving is a huge affair? Probably a good place for some hirelings. A sweeping goofy epic that goes from fighting kobolds in the forest to fighting undead in the swamp to the dragon in the mountains with danger at every corner? Probably not. Never say never though.

A Plague Upon You!

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So craziness is about with the recent epidemic and D&D has had to keep pace and go digital. Oh, wait we live in 2020 world and these tools are widely available and used by many before this, us included. Discord, Skype, Roll20, D&D Beyond and Fantasy Grounds only scratch the surface of tools easily found to help a transition to digital games.

In more D&D oriented news, Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount has been released. There was even a fun Q&A held by Matter Mercer and Marisha Ray that was quite hilarious. On the horizon we Mythic Odysseys of Theros releasing soon and lots of information on running digital games from the crew at Wizards. Onto the meat, but it’s pretty questionable this time.

Plagues. In D&D plagues can be a major plot point or alternatively serve as a backdrop for the world at large. They could range from real world analogs like the black death or smallpox to something more magical and targeted. Perhaps there is a plague that mostly affects elven men, specifically designed to weaken them militarily. What are the consequences to that? Perhaps it happens and they fall as a society, perhaps women take up the call and shift their social structure for generations to come or perhaps the intrepid adventurers will find a cure before it spirals out of control.

Let’s take that last one and run with it. Who made this plague and to what end? The most logical answer is a rival power. Perhaps the drow as revenge or dwarves who want the fertile elven lands. Simple, but simple can be good. Something like this can easily become a backdrop and not the spotlight. The characters may find themselves in the middle of a political situation that might be difficult to navigate. The party of dwarves discover the plot and a moral dilemma is formed. They may dislike elves, but is this moral? Is it cowardly? Their loyalty and morality is tested, will they act for the greater good or allow it to happen to further the machinations of their leadership? One wonders.

What if it’s not a rival power, but some chaotic faction? What if a singular person or minor faction made it for some dastardly end? This is where things can get interesting. Perhaps they worship some plague god, similar to Nurgle from the Warhammer universe. Themed factions are really fun to create, especially if the players pursue them as an enemy. Let’s take the Nurgle faction, you can have things like rot grubs, diseased rats, the sibriex, and a slew of amazing homebrew creatures. A particular favorite of mine with this theme is the Herald of Rot, which I found on the monster a day subreddit.

An expert dermatologist in Kuala Lumpur mentions that even simply reskinning existing creatures to do poison or necrotic damage can make it work with a bit of descriptive flare. ‘The dwarf moves menacing towards you, boils on his face and puss dripping from his eyes. As he moves he takes his axe and slides it across his flesh popping boils and coating it with the disgusting liquid that escapes.’ Gross, but telegraphs to the players what might happen if they are hit by this character.

Zombies fit into this easily. Cliche for sure, but giving them new abilities brings a freshness to them. They might simply deal an extra d4 of necrotic damage or poison their targets. Perhaps their corpses explode when struck down splashing bile and puss on those nearby. This might be bypassed by using fire, cold or radiant damage. The possibilities for such changes are endless.

Another way to take this is fungal infestations. Perhaps the plague came from a denizen of nature, like a spore druid. She creates a fungus that infects people, perhaps killing them and raising them as a spore zombie or creating obedient myconids from the corpses. Or, more terrifyingly, controls living sentient people towards some goal if they are infected by the spores. They might be ordered to simply infest others or destroy infrastructure, slowly degrading civilization enough for nature to become a real threat once more.

There are other ways to play it as well, in many stories vampirism and lycanthropy are diseases. A plague of werewolves or even less than Victorian vampires could be a real problem. Another plague adjacent infestation is that of slaad. Their reproductive methods are quite horrific and could easily go out of control like a plague if left unchecked.

Hell, maybe have a less than heroic campaign where the players are the plague bringers. Things like oath breaker paladins, spore druids, death and grave clerics, zealot barbarians, necromancy wizards and the like. Even simply changing an existing subclass that doesn’t lend itself to such play and theming it that way is always fun. Maybe you are a life cleric whose healing leaves permanent scars or strange lesions on your allies. This makes them feel healthy but over time slowly changes them, perhaps unknown to even themselves until this is pointed out. After a few months of your healing their skin shows as a pallid green that frightens those they meet. How will that play out within the party?

It’s a fun concept to play with that can take you in a myriad of directions. It’s strange to imagine how a society would deal with such things in a vaguely medieval setting. There are no borders to close or planes to shut down. The best you can do is close off your cities and burn the bodies. Of course there is magic, but few games are in a high magic setting where such issues could simply be snapped away.

I’ve always felt that diseases and poisons are far too easy to magic away in D&D. You hit level five or so and such things are a nuisance, less than a real threat outside the immediacy of combat. I think a good way to solve this is requiring a specific material component for such a spell to cure a disease that is more of a plot point. Perhaps the flower from a far off mountain is the key to the cure. This mountain, however, is guarded by a dragon or worse yet, the plague bringers discover the location of the cure and guard it themselves.

In any case, I hope you are all taking care of yourselves and your loved ones. Stay safe and healthy and let’s hope next month’s post is a bit less… virus-y? Next month I’ll be covering hirelings and other NPC allies.

Sword, Sorcery or Sword…cery?

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Another source book has been announced entitled Mythic Odysseys of Theros, an expansion on the Magic: The Gathering world. It contains a few new subclasses, races, supernatural gifts and other content that seems aimed at tier three and four play. While I am not familiar with Theros, the little I have gleamed seems interesting and more 5e content is always welcome.

It’s stated that the supernatural Gift Baskets for Women will be presented in the form of a race. I’m curious how they intend to do it because it can either be very bland or imbalanced. I just hope we don’t end up with another orc, which is often considered one of the weakest races they have ever added. Going from the more recent UA for class options, I am hoping they provide some alternative features for races instead of just creating new ones, which can lead to more elf bloat and leave some races behind. That’s all we need, supermanelf, batmanelf and vampelf.

On the topic of supernaturals, I once toyed with the idea of a series of feats that give you powers of vampirism and lycanthropy. For vampires the benefits and detriments increased with each subsequent feat. On the other hand lycanthropes had a fun curve that allowed them to control their shifting more and more, but when it went wrong, it could be disastrous. Rolling a 1 on the shifting check would cause the character to lose control and be nigh unstoppable for some time until they could make another check. It was a fun concept I never finished or used.

Sword, Sorcery or Sword…cery?
Onto the topic at hand, martial versus magical classes. So I like the three pillars and if I had to pick a ratio it would be 20% exploration, 40% social and 40% combat. Given that, it should be no surprise that my favorite classes are rogue and warlock. They combine great combat capabilities with amazing utility in the form of expertise and invocations respectively allowing them to really shine in the right situations. I definitely think wizard falls into this category as well, but I personally cannot stand how squishy they tend to be.

One thing I find annoying about 5e that was nearly perfect in 4e are pure martial characters. The structure to fourth edition nearly ensured all characters had abilities they could use to change the flow of an encounter that mimicked spells like launching a fireball, casting slow or charm person. This issue makes me feel the pure martial subclasses are quite dull and lack the flare that 4e ensured every class had.

Hell, in 5e I don’t think I would ever touch a pure martial class outside of scout, swashbuckler or battlemaster, but let’s look at them individually to see where my problems lie.

Barbarians are less martial than they should be, by all rights. In reality only battlerager and berserker are non-magical and they are often considered the weakest of the subclasses. Sadly berserker is the most cliche subclass and just falls flat for me. Generally, it’s another shirtless dumb guy who gets mad and smashes things. Battlerager is, well… just… you know, let’s just table that mess and move on. That said, the other more magical ones I find interesting and evocative. When I imagine a totem barbarian I get an image of characters like Rexxar from Warcraft and Udyr from League. A warrior who understands nature and seeks to emulate it in combat, roaring like a beast or simply moving like one. The spells they get access to even lend the subclass to a more martial version of a druid. Zealots are warriors of god who, to me, feel far closer to what I imagine a paladin being than actual paladins. They radiate the passion of their faith as they tear a swath through the battlefield and just refuse to die until they feel their deity is done with them. Storm heralds run across the battlefield with literal storm effects enveloping them like the Tasmanian devil. Ancestral guardians take the battlefield and summon their ancestors to harass their enemies, how fucking metal is that?

Rogue is where this gets weird for me because the base class is just so solid. You could ignore subclasses and it would still be strong and compelling. It’s a delicious, perfectly cooked steak and the subclass is just the wine and sides that only add to its splendor. That doesn’t mean I don’t have the aforementioned problem with them. Subclasses like assassin, inquisitive and mastermind really sound good, but play strangely. They both require a strong social pillar to let them shine. Swashbuckler is a kind of frontline rogue, not giving a shit about positioning to get sneak attack and lending itself to a classic and cliche rogue. Scout is a wannabe ranger with no spells, but does it well. While it cannot compare to true ranger in their chosen environment, they can do very well in a game with a strong exploration pillar. Thief is the rogue subclass I often forget exists. It’s not bad, but that’s because it’s really just not anything, it’s just rogue plus. Then, of course, there is arcane trickster. A rogue that can cast spells is great in and of itself, but add in the actual features like mage hand legerdemain and magical ambush and you got yourself a stew going, baby.

Last and, in my opinion, least are fighters. Oh fighters, you are so great in the long run. Action surge, up to four attacks, an extra ASI and second wind are nothing to scoff at. Mechanically solid but, without a great character concept, so dull. Champion is just the epitome of the issue I have and is just ‘fighter fight fightier.’ Cavalier was the mounted fighter in its UA form but they did away with that in favor of something better but still leaving some of that flavor. Still feels dull and quite frankly many of the features it gets are very similar to maneuvers battlemasters can choose. Samurai isn’t that bad and has it’s head above water in my book, but still isn’t quite there. It has great combat features and some rather decent social ones, but is still just shy of something I would ever want to play. Battlemaster is where things get interesting. The maneuver system is just great and provides players with customization options. The downfall to battlemasters is that is more or less all the class is. Know your enemy is nice, but the information is vague and the requirements feel disjointed. To be completely honest it’s a subclass I feel shouldn’t exist. I feel the maneuver system should have been baseline as a customization feature for fighter. I would favor that over the extra ASI. Moving onto the eldritch knight, which is good, but it feels at odds with itself sometimes. I want to be gishing, casting a spell and swinging my weapon, but that’s not really an optimal option. Attacking twice is generally more competitive than using the melee spells like green flame blade or booming blade. Even once you get war magic, it loses it’s novelty once you hit level 11 and get a third attack. I will say that weapon bond and arcane charge are pretty boss, however.

I should, at least, mention the spell-less ranger that was published in a UA. It was interesting, but seems to be abandoned at this point. Skirmisher’s stealth was a bit broken, but the rest of it was so lacking in comparison to spells it made a sort of sense.

I like customizable features in my classes, which is why I love warlocks. Invocations are amazing and really give a customization option that just works in my opinion. I would love to see something like it for every class, which is where I feel maneuvers going baseline would make fighters great. In addition to combat abilities, give the list things used outside of combat that use the same die. As I mentioned previously I like the direction they seem to be going with the class options UA and hope they publish and expand on the concept in the future. Options are good.

In any case, enough of my anti-martial rhetoric, what do you think? Are pure martial classes boring? Are you like me and need some sort of magic or at least magic adjacent features to make it fun? Will Owlbearman save Griffinboy from the Jesters trap? Find out next month.

The Impossible Choice

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So a few weeks ago on Critical Role (Campaign 2, Episode 93) the Mighty Nein faced the age old impossible choice. In their circumstances it is an evil entity making them choose between happiness of one for the misery of another. While a bit unfortunate at least it seems pretty cut and dry. Sometimes the impossible choice is far more esoteric in nature, leading to broad and sometimes incomprehensible consequences. In any case, while I will not reveal the specifics of the short term outcome of the encounter, it was a great D&D moment.

The impossible choice is a trope in entertainment as far back as stories go. As I DM I want to put my players in that situation. Not to stress them out or make them uncomfortable but to help them define their character and perhaps learn a bit about themselves. Grunt the half-orc is the hardest barbarian you’ve ever encountered, but how does he react when he is forced to choose between his son and his soul mate? Will he accept the Axe of Corruption knowing he might succumb to it one day? Will he trade the hag a piece of his soul for eternal glory in combat? I wonder…

Is it fun to be put in those situations? Perhaps, perhaps not. I wonder though… I mean it has to be in some way. Entire pen and paper games revolve around worlds where your options are to choose between awful and horrible. Call of Cthulhu and World of Darkness are great examples.

Call of Cthulhu pits you against a world where Loftcraft’s Old Gods exist and cause the madness captured in his works. Your role is that of an investigator and generally leads you into cases where you find evidence of things humans are not meant to know, let alone study or investigate. You are constantly hounded by things you can scarcely comprehend let alone defend against. All the while you slowly go mad simply trying to survive. The only way out is to run and never look back, leaving it all behind and hope it doesn’t find you again. Running usually means leaving friends and loved ones to die, driving home the harrowing corner of life you have chosen to experience.

World of Darkness, specifically Vampire the Masquerade, the subgame with which I am most familiar, releases you into a world you generally know nothing about. The world is filled with rules you could not know nor understand at the start of your rebirth into unlife. You have to be taught by those older than you who seem to want to use you for their own ends no matter the personal cost to you. That just hits the tip of the iceberg as vampires whose ages can only be guessed use everyone to play their ancient and nearly incomprehensible game. You live a mean existence that demands you choose between your very humanity and surviving as a ravenous beast within you rages against your will in an attempt to be released. Indeed, should it be released it will simply slink back to it’s cage to rest while you are left to deal with the fallout of its actions. Difficult choices followed by difficult choices interspersed with impossible ones.

Games are generally used to vacate your own personal life for a few hours. Some decide to play that out in a world with an unbelievable amount of stress. Perhaps imagining these places gives us perspective. Maybe it reminds us that things could be much worse and the piddly problems we worry about each day are so inane in the grand scheme of things. Or is it that humans just love conflict? Maybe it’s all three or neither.

Personally, I enjoy it in the moment. As a DM being put on the spot when players do something you don’t expect is fun and interesting. It makes you think and come up with a solution. It’s an odd feeling for me specifically because I am an anxious person and prone to drastically overthink decisions if I have too much time to dwell on them.

So, are they fun? Or is it something you would rather avoid in your recreation?

Mind, Magic and Mindflayers

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Welcome to 2020. So Evan (Mardin) convinced me to write this. Although I say convinced it was far less dramatic, a barely two sentence question posed through Discord. I enjoy writing so it took very little convincing honestly. By the way, my name is Christopher otherwise known as Xeir and, on occasion, Kelkorian.

That said, this shitshow I will be writing is regarding Dungeons and Dragons. Ye olde satan worshipping parties thrown by nerds. My goal is to give my thoughts on the game in general and new developments. Might as well dive right in.

Recently, Wizards made the world of Exandria, of Critical Role fame, a canonical setting. Matthew Mercer, Exandria’s creator, is a great storyteller and has a great setting that he has clearly poured his heart and soul into. Kudos to him. Also over the last few months there have been several Unearthed Arcana articles for every class. Some were testing out psionic subclasses, a concept I have always had a few problems with, especially within 5e.

Let’s talk about that shall we? The base concept is magic, but with no components, all achieved through sheer force of the mind. An interesting premise for sure, but ultimately flawed. Magic without components is very powerful as they limit your ability to use them in every situation. A person who can cast mind altering or reality altering spells without the use of words, hands or materials can be terrifying and nearly impossible to keep at bay without very powerful countermeasures such as something like an anti-magic zone. Does that work though? Is psionics still magic? At the end of the day, it is magic, but is it magic within the rules of D&D?

It’s up for debate with the ruling on such things shifting its wording several times. One source states that magic and psionics are two different effects. Another states that psionics create magical effects and a tweet from Jeremy Crawford, the lead game designer of D&D, himself states that innate spellcasting is still magic, but does not specifically mention psionics. Crawford is quite articulate and when he states something he usually states it in a specific way, so for him to omit the term psionics seems indicative. Of course, he’s human and isn’t infallible, but the point remains.

Ultimately I think psionics is something that should be more flavor than substance. Perhaps a peppering of intriguing features over high powered, lack of component magic. By the rules, a wizard technically only needs his or her spell book to prepare and add spells to their repertoire. This way of doing magic is very Vancian and, to me, is already quite close to psionics. Luckily, for the most part, this seems to be the route Wizards of the Coast are taking with the concept. I don’t agree with the way they formed a few of the subclasses, but Unearthed Arcana is a beta test after all. We will see how they get shaken out when and if they are published into a source book.

There is some speculation online about a return of Spelljammer to accompany all these psionic subclasses. I hope it’s true. Spelljammer takes this concept of the astral sea being a literal sea and just runs with it and it’s amazing. Of course that mixture of space and fantasy doesn’t float everyone’s boat, but it does for mine and that fucker is powered by magic… in space.