Roll your character

I saw someone make some dice on Facebook once – I think they were 3d printed – with class and race icons on them. I thought it was cool but the I’m saving to buy a house right now so I didn’t even click through to see how much they were selling them for.

In a fun collaboration with my partner, we made some paper d12s, which have the standard classes on. Well, they have icons which you can guess are for the standards classes. It’s hard to differentiate between sorcerers and wizards, fighters and barbarians, so think of these more as Story Cubes. If you can’t tell, make up a story around the icon and go for what you really wanna play!

A stack of paper d12s

Lost Civilisations

Following my notes on merchants, my next article is discussing lost civilisations, ranging from the extinction of entire species, the affect of a single family disappearing, or even just one unique creature going missing. In any case, this chapter will dive into what’s left for your adventurers to find when someone vanishes from the face of the earth.

Ruins and reminders of who came before help fill your world with history that makes it feel more real. Maybe your adventurer’s quest didn’t just start last Tuesday, but they’re following the events of something that happened three centuries ago that’s only now causing problems.

Here’s what you get in this one:

  • The history of three ideas for long gone people that you’re free to steal or use for inspiration
  • Five tables to roll on (along with a healthy dose of imagination) to build your own long lost group
  • A whole one-shot adventure, with the potential to totally end the world unless your characters can act against a ritual to summon a kraken
  • Six ridiculously powerful rings
  • Stats for a bright imp, a cool celestial controlled imp
  • Sprinklings of DM advice all through

Like before, you can grab this for free here, or you can pay-what-you-want over on the DMs Guild.

More on Merchants

A while ago I wrote a tiny article giving some stat blocks for merchants and tradesman around your 5e world, and then I popped it on the DMs Guild and people actually bought it. With real money.

Alongside my excitement at having made money from my writing for the first time ever, I felt bad that it was really just two pages that people had paid for. So I supersized it!

Now, the merchants article includes:

  • Stat blocks for common and master merchants
  • A system for figuring out the value of goods (appraising), which you can use for your merchants or for players who want to make such a check
  • Three different NPCs, premade for you with wants, desires, and a place in the world
  • Each of them have a quest prompt for you to expand on that you can fit into your world, or kick off your campaign with
  • 24 items that the NPCs sell, each ready for you to put some history into
  • Four bits of DM advice!

You can grab it for free here, or pay-what-you-want over on the DM’s Guild.

I received some feedback

The best part about writing those two spells was that a couple of my friends gave me some notes which made me think about aspects of design that I hadn’t considered.

One friend, we’ll call him Will as that’s his name, pointed out that in my attempt to add fun to Sleep, I missed out a crucial point: niche spells aren’t necessarily a terrible thing. Specifically, the spell is one of the only AOE low level abilities. This is why it’s a good spell. Mark, another accurately named friend, said nearly the exact same thing about my reimagining of Gentle Repose. It’s a spell that’s good for two very specific and very important tasks; extending the time that Revivify can be cast, and stopping an ally becoming a manipulated undead. Any more than that and the spell becomes overpowered – hard to wrangle.

It’s weird that I was given this advice multiple times, by two different people. All the evidence points to this being practised wisdom. Will and Mark have played longer than me (and dare I say it, pour over the core books much better than I do). Not to mention the fact that Wizards likely know what they’re doing – so many of the spells must behave like this for some reason. It must be that a singularly purposed spell is just Good Writing.

Despite that, I still want to scream “WHY!?”

Aren’t sleepy crickets and animated, not-quite-dead allies fun? What’s so bad about “hijinks” (as scrap princess calls it) or “versatility” (as Mark called it)?

Does versatility make writing campaigns hard? Is a sandboxed rules environment too difficult to balance? This can only be true if a DM writing a campaign sits down and writes around these spells that open (or allow rescue from) very specific avenues of folly. In which case, the spells really are terrible. They shouldn’t take up the space they do in the PHB. I don’t think this is how people write adventures.

In a world where Wizards have given us very specific Allen keys that work only in very specific bolts, I feel like we could do with some more multitools.

Wouldn’t that be more fun?

Boring Spells

scrap princess made an interesting post criticising how some 5e spells are pretty bland. I’ve got two mechanic-based spells that come right to mind that I’d like to make more story-based, without altering the level too much (though, really not caring too much about that). My aim is to take these spells from a crunchy exploit of the rules, to something actually usable in more than one situation.

Sleep

I dislike Sleep and write it off as nearly useless. I’ve seen it used many times and can remember the times it actually worked. You’re going to get 22 HP of creatures to fall to sleep (including allies, making the spell even more useless as you can’t use it in a dire straights moment). Even at level 1, if you’re in a fight where you feel the need to use more than cantrips, the bad guy you’re up against is going to have more than 22 HP. That 22, lets remember, is the average; you’re just as likely to roll under it.

The spell’s job is to temporarily knock an enemy out of combat, rarely more than one but sometimes. That’s its only real purpose. The single minute it lasts for means outside of combat it’s not great. Let’s change it.

Sleep. 1st level Enchantment.

1 action. Range: 90 feet. Components: Whispered voice, a dried cricket which is used up by the spell. Duration: 1 hour. Concentration. Wisdom save.

The cricket is brought back to life by your whispered spell. Once given a description of the target, it will do its best to seek them out within the range of where the spell was cast. The cricket can move up to 60 feet on the caster’s turn, including its first turn.

When it comes into contact with any conscious creature (other than the caster), that creature must make a Wisdom saving through or else be put into a magical sleep for the duration, or until they take damage. This happens regardless of if the creature is wearing armour or other gear.

Upon contact, upon being killed, or at the end of the duration of the spell, the cricket crumbles into sand.

Using a higher level spell slot increases the potency of the sleep. 3rd level or higher: Duration increases to 24 hours. 5th level or higher: Spell has no duration and is only bound by Concentration.

Now the spell lasts a whole hour. One minute was clearly marking the spell as a combat one – “1 minute” being mechanical lingo for “oh, just an entire fight, I guess”. Now it has a bunch more utility. You can use it to sleep the security guard, carry out your entire heist, and be gone again before he notices anything.

Allowing this to be extended to a day or longer, is mostly to allow the spell to be used as a quest hook; our train driver has stopped responding from beyond his impenetrable compartment, and the train is quickly coming to the end of a line with no sign of slowing down. Our only hope is to find the evil wizard who’s put the driver under their spell and break their Concentration!

The cricket can hang around for a while too, by the way. Just waiting for someone that looks like the described target. The caster could be long gone by then, leaving the cricket to jump into the arms of whoever follows after them.

This is much cooler. It’s more useful. More likely to work (especially as it gets better as you get better at controlling your magic). And it’s just more fun. Meanwhile, it’s still only temporary, requiring just a shove (to the sleeper, or the caster to break their Concentration). It only affects one creature now. It can’t actually do any damage. And, if the DM was mean enough, the cricket can just be avoided by the target. A wizard would know exactly what that insect dashing right towards them was up to – they’d be trained to spot it.

It’s for sure still within the realms of a level 1 spell.

Gentle Repose

Which sane cleric is going to give up a prepared spell slot for this? At best it’s a “just in case a party member dies” spell, which rarely happens. During the 10 days of the spell, the “dead” PC has no idea if they should roll another character or not – sitting and watching like an audience member, rather than playing a game. It’s not a good spell to take. Even if your cleric was committed to their keeping-you-idiots-alive role, the game is less fun for them because they can’t take Zone of Truth or Spiritual Weapon or Silence.

Gentle Repose (Ritual) 2nd level Necromancy.

1 action. Range: Touch. Components: A cry for help, a gathering gesture over the body, a donation which the spell will consume. Duration: See description.

A wordless shadow wrenches itself from the wounds, mouth, ears, and nose of the corpse or other remains that you are touching. It holds out a hand.

An offer is expected and taken by the shadow. This needn’t be just gold. The DM decides on the worthiness of the offer.

Pitiful: 1d4 + 2. Decent: 1d10 + 2. Respectful: 1d20 + 2.

The DM rolls this to determine how long the shadow is willing to reanimate the corpse for. They become undead and are not considered dead. For the duration or until returned to life, the corpse loses all proficiencies. It remembers little of its previous life and struggles to talk. This is not a comfortable life.

So now it’s a useful spell! Suddenly you’ve got FOUR HOURS to find someone who can revive your friend. Just four hours to find that 600 gold pieces the clerics want as a “donation” – if you can even find a cleric willing to deal with this (now undead) situation.

The body may be a lumbering, dazed buffoon, but your player still gets to play themselves. Impose disadvantage on everything they do (as if poisoned) to really reinforce that they’re only glued to their body and not fully in control. A resurrection is the only way to fix this. Even after you’re back, you have to ask yourself, what was that shadow inside you? Your soul? A demon? Do we all have that inside us..?

Alternatively, do the ritual on a dead horse and flee from the inevitable TPK.

The spell shouldn’t replace Speak with Dead, which is why the ability to do finessed skills like talking is limited. Even so, is this spell a whole bunch more powerful than its original? Sure. It’s also more fun, more useful, and adds in some story. It’s now a spell worth taking, and leans into the necromancy territory properly, which Wizards seem terrified of doing.

I showed this to a few friends before publishing it, and let me tell you they were outraged with how I’ve treated these poor spells. They were quite right to be in some instances, and yet I refute them all! I’ll be posting a follow up explaining how wrong they are.

D&D and LaTeX

I quite like writing in Word. It feels fully featured and does everything I need it to. Mike Mearls in his Happy Fun Hour writes in Word, and if it’s good enough for him it should be for all of us. However, it’s quite wonderful having your content look like a Player’s Handbook cutout.

There’s a website called the Homebrewery which lets you do that really well.

However, there’s an even nerdier way of doing it.

Today I updated my Merchants supplement to be written with LaTeX using a template from Evan Bergeron (and the other contributors) on GitHub. On a slightly less nerdy point, I’ve no idea how to write LaTeX. So, I had to turn to Overleaf which provides a simple UI for it.

Overleaf with a D&D document

It’s a good place to properly store your progress (with a perfect revision history), keep all your images and other files together, and collaborate on the files Google Drive style with other people. Nothing is locked in either – I push all my projects to GitHub just via the UI.

Taming the Table

It takes a while to end up in a good TRPG group. If you’re lucky you have a group of friends and can persuade them to run a game with you. Often though, your friends just aren’t that into it, or aren’t into it enough to satiate your appetite. That’s when people end up at their local Meetup.com group. From this point the ‘quality’ of gamer is a mixed bag ranging from ultra-conservative rules lawyers to hyperactive murder hobos and tyrannical DMs.

Eventually though, and I hope this happens before you burn out, all these people – like you, the sane ones – will come together (fleeing their past groups) and make a very sensible game. Good players, smart characters, all of you involved in the world your DM is unravelling.

So, there you are, enjoying Faerun or Tal’Dorei when you come across a minion of the Big Bad. Finally! A lead! You grasp at the chance to gain a little more information about your villain. Your first couples of rolls are a bit so-so though, and not much information is gained. For all your yelling at him, he’s staying tight lipped. This is the situation my group found itself in recently.

I’d decided we had gotten all we could from this guy. He was at our mercy, we’d scared him enough. Our rogue felt differently. He first asked, “is there a bucket of water around?” It was an odd question that the DM narrowed his eyes at and said there was. The rogue then described holding his blade in one hand and the ganger’s ear in the other…

I’m unsure how everyone else around the table was feeling but personally I was wondering if we wanted to turn into a group that role plays this sort of thing. Totally ignoring the considerations of in-character morality, do I want to sit at a table with a bunch of guys ogling over a torture scene?

No, of course not. I’ve been with this group for well over a year now, playing weekly. Our humour has never centred around that type of gameplay. So, I felt safe saying, “how about we skip this scene and just say we roughed him up a little more?” (We still got a fairly detailed map out of the whole thing.)

I don’t blame the guy for trying this out. If it were a different game – a darker game like Shadow of the Demon Lord – maybe I’d feel different. Pushing these social boundaries is the only way to find out where they are. As one of the good, receptive players, our rogue picked up on the hint and dialled it back. He’d discovered our boundary. Paying attention to the table, and not just the DM, is vital to see everyone’s comfort levels.

Maybe there’s an official Code of Conduct for the Meetup group, but I have not read it, and don’t care for it beyond the obvious “don’t be a jerk”. A written code might come from an innocent place but may well be restrictive to the ambiance of certain stories.

I play on-and-off with three different groups and the boundaries in each are very different. A curse word in one group might drop like a deadweight, but the same word in another goes unashamed and even adding enough emphasis to add advantage to an Intimidation check. Generic codes of conducts don’t work from table to table. They should be prodded into shape by the people around them, changing and evolving with the group.

A natural, and concerning, conclusion to this method of self-regulation between tables is groups full of no-holds barred depravity. The good news is this isn’t something I’ve ever witnessed. There’s a certain cringe-worthiness that comes with those scenes which prevents most socially-minded creatures from roleplaying, especially whilst staring into the eyes of their friends.

If you do find yourself in such a group, you’re within your rights to ask them to tone it down – if someone is getting carried with an amorous NPC try interjecting with “and then we fade to black!”. I’ve seen this work at least twice. It diffuses the tension with a laugh and is a subtle nod to your boundaries.

The conventional wisdom here is to talk to the player after the game. I don’t know about you, but I’d find that far to awkward. Nip it in the bud as soon as it happens. With humour and grace, if possible.

If they still don’t get the message, and don’t adjust their boundaries, you may have to stand up and find another table. This sucks but you may have found yourself where your boundaries don’t align with the rest of the group. This isn’t a failing on your part – you’re probably a fine player. It was a failure of the group; either they should listen to your (even subtle) signs of discomfort or they mis-advertised their group to you before the start of the game. Of course, there’s a place for groups who want to be a little more edgy, but the onus is on them to let new players know before-hand.

Everyone has a right to feel comfortable at a gaming table. It’s all of our jobs to make sure that happens.