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.

Steal these ideas

I’m going to share with you something which might shake you to your very core: when playing Dungeons and Dragons, you can steal from whatever books you like. Think further than Tolkien, and much further than the core rulebooks. Unless intellectual property lawyers have infiltrated your party, you have free reign over all books, comics, and music ever written. (On the off chance that Tom, who sometimes wears a tie to games, is an undercover operative from the Random House legal team, I think you may well get off lightly.)

Published adventures especially need some variation from what’s in the book, to stop them being single-serving stories. There’s no reason why you can’t play Lost Mines once a year, so long as you have added something interesting.

When people like Matt Colville say to just read the first and last chapters of a published adventure and then do what you like with the middle, or Chris Perkins tells you to make the adventure your own, they’re not suggesting you do that within the rigid confines of Forgotten Realms. They mean go and liberally steal, add a saucy twist, and run with it. There’s no need for your sauce to be homemade either.

Voltron Saving A Sapient Pearwood Chest
A sapient pearwood trunk, with Hedwig sitting on it. Both of these are being protected by Voltron with a lightsaber.

I just finished reading Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic and have come away with too many ideas to fit into a once-a-week D&D game. Every wizard and his familiar has a bag of holding in Forgotten Realms. Your players are heroes they deserve a sapient pearwood trunk, which they found trapped at the bottom of a cave system, sitting loyally by its late owner. Once they’ve found out how to befriend it, think of the fun they’ll have watching scoundrels lose their fingers. Think of the jealous wizards who recognise the distinctive dark rings.

Spice up your death saving throws by having Death sitting next to the adventurer once they become unconscious, patiently waiting (or not so patiently) for that critical failure. Whilst He’s there your warlock with truesight spots him and has a bit of a chat, revealing a clue that might set up the rest of the campaign. What if this was the only state which you could communicate with Death in, and your players start an odd death cult just for these nice get-togethers.

Don’t let cats be boring cats when you can steal straight from JK Rowling and make them Kneazles. No good detective should be without one, considering their ability to detect truths and lies. Instead of lockpicks, give your forest gnome rogue a Bowtruckle, the adorable and sensitive stick insect-like creature from Fantastic Beasts. There’s no need to change any game mechanic when doing this – maybe instead of proficiency with the lock picking tool, the player can use their animal handling.

Reskin Find Familiar as Find Dæmon for a select few people who live in a recently discovered distant land. Oh, and how interesting, the special connection between the person and the dæmon can be harvested somehow. Just plain rip off Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights and make it into a campaign. Your players will be both excited to play in a world they know, and curious to see which bits you’ve changed.

Swap out your big bad cultist or power crazed wizard for a young girl who’s just discovered her mighty telekinetic powers who’s causing a rather significant amount of bother. Set in the middle of the events of Carrie (Stephen King), how will your murder hobos handle subduing a budding woman when they understand her complex motivations. Surely they’ll have more of a dilemma than merely fighting Krad the Cruel, the latest monster of the week.

Run with a simple idea like the recent discovery of magic which allows you to carve a beautiful marble dragon, slowly leaking your soul into it, bringing it to life fantastically and powerfully. Check out the Assassin’s series by Robin Hobb to find out how that works out.

The lesson you should take away today is that anything is up for grabs. Don’t stick with fantasy. It’s possible your players will cotton on to what you’re doing very quickly, but in my experience, that’s never diminished the game. Being in an already fleshed out world only makes the whole scenario more real. The ideas are already out there; all you need to do is remix them a little.

Merchants

Grab the PDF by clicking the image.

There’s no stat block for merchants in any of the D&D books I have, so I was forced to write my own.

The special aspect about a merchant is their job; they’re good at buying and selling common and exotic items. A good merchant sets their prices smart enough to make a good profit and still attract those looking for a bargain. That requires a keen eye for pricing an item. So, I made up the Appraisal mechanic, which simply outlines what type of check should be made to work out the value of an item.

Charisma is used when the price is found from socialising with other merchants or even trying to figure out how much a customer would be willing to spend by feeling the general atmosphere around the market. On the other hand Intelligence might be used based on knowledge of the markets far and near – the economy. Charisma is the people-based knowledge gathering, and Intelligence lends itself more to understand the cause and effect of various outside forces.

D&D Murder Mystery

Our DM was away for a session, so I took the opportunity to run a one-shot. I didn’t want this to be a ordinary D&D game, and so wrote a murder mystery where each player was working against each other to find out who the murderer was first.

The set up was this: a wizard, in his new lich form, was furious with his death and demands to know who killed him. He’s already gathered evidence around his home and has bought the people he suspects most to his mansion. He then gives them the instructions to find out who killed him, and that only the first person that brings him back the correct answer will get to leave his home alive.

This is rather different from a normal D&D game: the heroes aren’t really heroes, and they don’t need to work together. In fact, working together will make it more likely that they’ll get stuck in this house as the lich’s guest.

The players were to hunt around for clues in each of the rooms in the mansion, and then later on share the clues they’ve found. Mechanically, they did Investigation checks in each room. Once in a while the lich would summon them to his dinner table again and allow them to question each other.

Each player has their own set of secrets to hold onto. They’re all either funny or incriminating. When a player asks another player about a specific piece of evidence, that might prompt the player to reveal a secret. For instance, one of your secrets might say “you must reveal this information if you’re presented with a beat up horseshoe”.

Only the murderer has three secrets to reveal that are relevant to the case. Find the guy with something to reveal about three secrets and you’ve found your murderer. You’ll need to race around to find the evidence before you can ask someone about it though.

(What’s the murderer doing during this time? The same as the players: investigating the rooms, but he’s only looking for ways to escape.)

Writing the murder was fun. In my mystery the solution was that one player killed the lich because he was in a relationship his parents wouldn’t approve of, and the lich was blackmailing him using that information. There’s hundreds of ideas for why someone might kill someone though. Once you’ve figured that out, it’s easy to pick the motive, the weapon, and make a player a murderer. Seed the house with lots of evidence (some red herrings, and some not) and watch them scramble to find it first.

The idea seemed great in my head, and on paper, but actually running the game had some issues I need to think on more to fix.

First of all, there’s quite a lot going on for a one-shot. The players have a lot of things to do (especially if the rooms are filled with puzzles). In my game, we were an hour and a half in before we got to our first clue. This was an issue. That gave the players two hours to get loads more clues – it didn’t seem possible. To “fix” this, I fell into a trap I’ve been in before: I made everything too easy to speed it up. The solution to the shadow-pit-fall-trap was easy to spot, the magmin died after two hits, and I gave clues out for rooms where clues shouldn’t have been found. The players definitely noticed this rushed type of DMing, which meant I didn’t get to have as much fun and they probably restricted themselves to the quickest action.

The issue is that turn based games – as I ran the entire game in initiative, as it was a race – are very slow. I should have accepted a piece of advice I was given during the game: let’s just carry on another time, don’t rush what we’re doing here. It’s fine to make the one-shot take two sessions.

I did have more combat and role playing planning, but skipped over a lot of it due to the timing issue. However, even with all the combat I had planned, there was still very little of it. That was strange to my players because I mislead them with a wonderful armoury where they could find tonnes of magic weapons. Why give the weapons if they weren’t going to be much use?

What I should have done is embraced it. Announced loudly that this game isn’t heavy on RP or combat which would have been totally fine! Lets focus on the story and the fun of investigating.

The next time I run this game I might just give out backgrounds to players, rather than having them come up with their background on their own and monkey patching on the backgrounds I needed them to have. This was another piece of advice my group gave, which makes sense. Players don’t mind being given a background, especially in this quirky format and setting.

I’ve listed a lot of the problems here, but all the players said they had a good night playing. One player said it was one of his favourite nights playing D&D, so that’s exciting! I feel like I’m on to something here, and will keep polishing it until it runs like a good, fun game for when you want to run something a little different but still within D&D.