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.


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.

Problem: fitting lots of tiles in a box

Arcana Delve works by randomly producing a dungeon as you travel from room to room. The players start in one room, decide to go north and then take the tile from the top of the “level 1” deck. They place it on the board, joining up the doors with the northern door, and then they can see what’s waiting for them in the room. They continue like this until they’re run out of tiles. Players of Carcassone will be familiar with this style of map building.

This leads to a unique game every time. Specific tiles could have events baked into them: “there is a trap in this room!”, “there’s a mysterious well in this room”. So, having more tiles is a good thing. It increases randomness and the element of “I really need the next room to be the one with the healing potions in it!”

The problem I’ll come across here is that there are three levels of dungeon (that’s an arbitrary number, but it will definitely be above one). That means there will be three sets of tiles, each three or four millimetres high. You end up with quite a heft box.

One option is just to have a large amount of non-level specific tiles, but that doesn’t work with my current idea of having the difficulty specified on the tile itself. A tile that shows up on level 3 should be harder than on the first level.

The solution I’m going to try out first is ditching the idea of a stack of tiles, where you pick from the top. Instead, the tiles are in a bag, and you can select one blindly. You may have played Carcassonne like this. When selecting a card blindly, it means I can use both sides of the tile. A different room on both sides.

This means I can have a large number of room options, on far fewer tiles. It gives an added aspect to the game too; should you put down the side with more monsters and try for their treasure, or should you choose the other safer side? Your players around you will be egging you on to take the risk, but are you brave enough?

Designing the map tiles

I have made a little bit of progress tonight with Arcana Delve, wherein I designed how the randomly generated map would work.

Carcassonne style, players will take a room piece from the stack of available ones and place it on the board, to reveal the room they’re about to enter. That room may or may not have further exits.

There will be some number of types of mine level: first level through Xth level. Once the players have placed all of the levels’ rooms, they can no longer discover any more rooms.

You’ll note that on two of them there are some numbers. This is the mechanic I’m going to use to tell the party how many creatures were waiting for them in the room. Since this should scale with the number of players (the top row), there’s a different number of monster depending on the players (bottom row).

This might be a bad idea. Sure, I can fit in three players, but why not five? At that point I’ll run into problems just fitting the data on the card.

Another idea is to have just a room “toughness”, a single number on the tile. And then maybe the players add the party size to that number. Instead, the monsters’ difficulty changes could be on the actual monster card rather than the terrain.

Lots of ideas still to play with.

Consistent design of playing cards

I have been working on Arcana Delve today, making the basic premise as well as jumping into create the character class cards.

Prototypes for the Medic and Infantry classes.
Prototypes for the Medic and Infantry classes.

My hand writing isn’t uniform – changing size quite drastically – so I’m hoping that when these cards are typed up then it will look less busy. For the moment, I’ve gone with putting the rule text for each special ability (Tend wounds or Dual wield) straight on the card. That’s something I can change though – I could throw that into the rule book. The player will have to look up what the feature does, but after the first or second time using it then I’d expect them to memorise it.

Magic the Gathering prints a usable chunk of the rule text for each mechanic on the card, but only in the set it’s released. After that, you’re expected to know what the affect of Infect is. They remove it from the card because you end up with quite busy cards – like what mine look like above.

Daniel Solis’ video series mentions the importance of a consistent card face.

I’ve made sure that the components will all be in the same place. Class name is always large in the top left, the health points and toughness is in the top right, just below is some flavour, and at the bottom is the actions they can take. This should decrease the cognitive load needed to understand the card. That’s useful when you’ve cards like mine – full of text.

Sitting around a table, it’ll be important for everyone to see what class the person opposite them is playing. I’m not sure if the bold “Medic” is enough, or if I should add in an icon. The icon might be useful: later on I can use it as a legend, to avoid having to say “Medic”. Freeing up the space with a proper font, and maybe dropping the rules on the card would mean a logo would definitely fit.

The main reason I’ve missed off any style or drawings is because I just can’t do it. Previously, I get excited about an idea until it needs some artistic design, and then I get dissuaded. These days, I like to avoid drawing so that I don’t lose my excitement because I couldn’t draw anything close to a person. That’s the same reason I stopped trying to use InDesign actually – it’s just way too complicated which was slowing me down more than it was helping.

All the numbers on the card are completely made up at the moment. I’ve not gotten far enough to be able to play a game of this yet, and so I don’t know what numbers are sensible. I mostly put them in there – randomly – to stop indecision later on. It’s better to have something down than spend hours trying to work out the best number algorithmically, wasting your enthusiasm on it.

Next thing for me is terrain tiles.