From the head of a derro

I’m working on a project and had to create a few things. They’re yours now.

A gross item

Flesh Pocket

Craftable. A patch of skin taken from another and attached, somehow, to your body. This is a secret hiding spot that only the most thorough search will find, if applied correctly. This small pouch can only hold very small items before it becomes obvious: a key to a jewelry box, a poisoned needle, or your most beloved lockpick.

A DC 18 Perception check or DC 15 Investigation check is required to spot the device.

I think this comes from Shadowrun actually. I needed this for two reasons: 1) I needed a way for the derro to have something smuggled into the prison when the rest of their belongings have been taken, and 2) someway to show the player characters (if they spot it) that this dude was willing to cut some flesh off another dude and SEW IT TO HIS THIGH.

An aggressive background

Acolyte With A Sword
Sometimes a god needs a physical force to ensure the divine plan goes the correct way; you have been that force. Eliminating threats to the faith, by sword or magic, discrete or bloody.

Choose a god you serve, working with your DM to see who is most appropriate to the world you’re in. Describe your religious contact who typically works with you, assigning your tasks.

Feature: Feared By Those Who Know. When applying pressure to someone who fears or respects your god, you can make Intimidation checks with advantage.

Skill Proficiencies: Religion, Intimidation.
Languages: One of your choice, plus Thieves Cant.
Equipment: A holy symbol, 1 vial of Assassin’s Blood or Serpent Venom, a set of common clothes, 15 gold pieces.

This derro has had his last dredges of sanity knocked out of him in the three Uniting Wars he’s been a part of, and the only reason anyone can think of for his survival is that he’s touched by Diinkarazan. Lets hope it doesn’t go to his head.

A dark spell

Diffuse Light.
Level 1, Evocation Spell. Concentration. Touch.
Light tends to avoid the target as best it can, dissolving as it approaches. Within a 10ft radius of the target, light becomes dim light, and dim light becomes non-magical darkness for 10 minutes.

I’m not totally sure why it took a derro to find this spell. Maybe discovering magicks requires a less, uh, structured mind. Either way, this is a god send (oh, maybe this is how he figured it out) for a sunlight sensitivity suffering derro.

The missing things from D&D: Contacts

Character creation in a lot of RPGs get you to think about a background for your character, and almost all of those, including D&D, get you to think about your ties to the world. The Background in D&D comes with a few questions which prompt this: what was the event which made you a folk hero? what made your turn your back on civilisation?

However, very few of those 5e backgrounds prompt you to think about specific people, with names.

Sources of information

In Call of Cthulhu, when you pick your occupation it specifically calls out the contacts you might have made during the course of your work. As a game based around investigation, and rarely brute force, having Barry from the Legal Team as a friend (or even just colleague) gives the player an avenue to turn to when they’re desperately struggling to find the next stepping stone. Finding new contacts is an actively part of the game too – the gunsmith isn’t just a person to sell you guns, but a name you should write down because you’ll need their expertise when it comes to tracking down the owner of a recently sold gun.

When creating a Shadowrun character, you can allot some of your starting attribute points to making new contacts. This isn’t quite a one-to-one relationship, but you can either pick a new spell or add a new contact. Similar to Cthulhu, Shadowrun is all about planning a heist and tracking down information, so it’s not surprising there are such systems around making a network of sources.

Finding a new contact can be as powerful as finding a magic item in Faerun. In Shadow of the Demonlord’s core rule book, this is specifically called out. Being introduced to the High Cultist might be the reward for an entire quest chain. Demonlord doesn’t put as much effort into this as some other systems, but it does include some prompts to be thought about when adding a new NPC.

Having this potential source of information doesn’t necessarily give the players a superpower; the DM still controls if what these sources know. This type of thinking – around if you’ve accidentally made your players too powerful – is counter-productive to fun. Instead, consider it another way for you to feed plot to the players when their wheels start spinning.

Family

There are far too many orphaned and unattached adventurers in the world. Too often there are no ties to their home. Even total losers have at least a cousin they have some affinity for.

At the beginning on my Maze of the Blue Medusa campaign, I asked the players why do you owe this kenku a favour? Despite coming with ideas about their character, there was no prep time for this, and they had to improvise something on the spot. I’m certain that’s the first time some of them had thought about the fact that their father needed some falsified documents, or that they were still living in their parents basement.

My main aim with getting the answer to this was to find ways that the characters were tied to the world, so I could wrap the plot around it when needed. It just so happened that along the way we learned about some of their family, and some of them become NPCs that the characters cared for. “Well, we can’t do the ritual in my home… what if someone bad happens and it affects my mum?” This isn’t just about role play (which a certain type of player is uneasy around) – it’s sometimes key to plot.

GM doesn’t stand for “Genius Minderreader”

Angry wrote about tips for players and they’re almost all decent. (I recommend that players do look at their character sheet as they make a decision, only to figure out if that’s how their character would behave.)

There’s one I’d like to reinforce though:

Don’t Make Your GM Guess. The more your GM knows about what you’re trying to do and how, the better off you are.

AngryGM

The contrary advice for this is “Trick your DM into letting you do something cool.”

I’ve been at tables – and may have even done this myself, come to think of it – where a player is asking probing questions of the DM, clearly fishing for something. Maybe they’ve got Heat Metal trigger finger and are hoping the DM will say, “yeah, I guess they do have a family medaleon on them, what I strangely specific question!”

This comes from a mindset that the DM is not a player, but are actually an adversary.

In reality though, when the Secret Society of DMs inducts another we all take a sacred vow: remember your players are Heroes and let them do cool shit. “No, that doesn’t work” is not a fun thing for a DM to say. It shuts the scene down, kills the energy. It’s only a reasonable thing to say when you’ve asked for something that doesn’t fit the internal consistency of the world.

DM’s love it just as much as the players when a sneak Heat Metal disables The Big Bad. (We can always make a new Big Bad.)

Instead, Angry’s advice should be followed: let your DM know what you want to do. I don’t know if you know this, but the DM can literally make shit up. “I’d like to do a cool freerunning thing to catch up with the bandit – are there any footholds along the buildings?” “Absolutely there are! Do an Acrobatics check for me and we’ll see how you do!”

Should we be making quest logs?

Some things in video games are only possible there and would become a slog if we had to do them with pen and paper. We should sometimes have a think about features in video games that could be easily ported to tabletop, and see how they impact our games. The one I was thinking of recently was the quest log.

A few reasons why they’ve super useful in video games: If I don’t play the game for a month, I usually forget my objective. They can offer a story recap of previous bits I’ve done, and who for. They let me keep track of multiple goals at once if the story is complicated and weaving around multiple threads.

Well, those perks all seem great on a tabletop game too. In one of the games I play, we typically play every other week. Sometimes we have to miss a week because of reallife obligations, and that’s A WHOLE MONTH between sessions. A reminder and clarification of what we’re supposed to be doing wouldn’t go unwanted. In Lost Mines and more so in Rhyme there are tonnes of side quests. Did anyone take a note on who was looking for the hideout of the Redbrands, you remember, that quest from six months ago?

Players’ should be keeping their own notes. It’s incredibly rewarding as a DM when your players connect two dots – something they won’t do without notes. Not to mention, it’s super useful for players to be a second reference for information. I play with a DM who gives inspiration for offering NPC names before he has time to flick around the book to find them – something which speeds up the game a bunch. However, I think there’s a lot to be said for the DM keeping a list and saying “just so you know, you’ve started on the Blacksmith’s Son questline”.

Part two of this idea is that maybe DMs should break immersion just a little bit more and list what the reward is on this sheet of paper. Not just the gold reward the blacksmith has promised, but a hint at the magic item they might find along the way. If the players ever get stuck on their main quest – maybe they feel they’ll need some silvered weapons before they can take on the werewolf – a sidequest might offer it to them.

Some sidequests would of course be competing. Do you go after the Blacksmith’s Son now, or Root Out The Goblins first, risking the trail going cold? Blacksmith’s Son hints at those silvered weapons, but Root Out The Goblins cryptically suggests there might be a whole box of potions of invisibility available, which would be cool as heck.

“Enhanced Interogation”

As a player or as a referee, I can do without torture happening in my games.

My line goes as far as “lets tie him to a chair, and wave a dagger around to intimidate them”. Anything more than that and it gets kind of icky for me. The immersion is broken and the situation snaps into clear focus: I’m sitting with a group of adults whilst one of them describes ordinarily unmentionable ways of compelling someone to hand over some information, and they push it and push it in the hopes of getting advantage on their roll.

I’m happy to say that this almost never happens. It’s happened a couple of times, and when it has most people have understood and found another route. On one time though, the DM said, “well, you need to find another way of getting him to tell you the information then.” It didn’t feel like there was another way – the bandit was steadfast and cared for nothing but the end of Chult. We didn’t get the information – I expect we weren’t supposed to capture the bandit, but a dice roll got out of the DM’s control.

On a few occaisions we’ve chosen “the scene fades to black as you begin your interogation” method. This is largely fine! (Your mileage may vary.) Nothing is described, other than the character’s intent, and then an intimidation roll is made. This is fine.

However, you still have to journey with adventurers who were willing to do that. (This awkwardness only extends to the character – I’ve never played with genuninely sadistic people, I assume.) In world, I’m not sure how that would sit well with everyone. Rarely are there consequences.

So, as a general houserule for games I run in the future, I have this:

Torture will never yield beneficial results, even in “fade to black” scenes, or off-screen scenes by NPCs. You will only ever hear lies. The lies will be uninteresting. There’s no point in trying. My promise in return is that there will always be another way to find the information you’re after. If it’s not obvious what that way is, talking to another NPC will point you in the right direction.

There are other tools and you should start each campaign by checking in with your group for them. The “fade to black” option is similar to ‘lines and viels’ that is commonly used. It’s not just about super grim stuff like this: double check if your group are okay with fighting spiders, as you don’t want to be kickstarting anyone’s phobias.