Hipsters & Dragons

Because roleplaying is social, creative, fun… and kinda cool!

The Gleaming Cloud Citadel

What have I been up to recently? I’ve only gone and published a fricking 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons adventure, that’s what!

It’s taken a monster-load of time. After first writing it in the back end of 2016, and first playing it in the front end of 2017, the adventure then needed extensive polishing to reach a level of quality whereby others could actually enjoy reading it and play it themselves. Then I formatted the whole thing with much difficulty using OpenOffice, before discovering an amazing tool by the name of HomeBrewery which makes formatting your own material in the style of official WoTC merchandise pretty easy. Cue formatting it all over again.

Then there was the player feedback, friends’ feedback and my own critical eye, leading to many revisions, and on top of that a considerable amount of time was given over to editing errors flagged in the final proofs, creating the maps (and then deciding they were not good enough and commissioning someone else to create the maps), and commissioning the front cover.

All in all it was quite a mission. But I must say, it’s damn amazing to see it up for sale on the DMs Guilds. After just over a week it’s sold 25 or so copies, garnered a few nice words, and I really hope people are going to enjoy playing it. To think that gamers around the world will be adventuring in a dungeon of my creation is quite a big buzz!

What’s It About?

Originally designed for 10th and 11th level characters (but with concrete advice on playing it from 5th level upwards… see more below), The Gleaming Cloud Citadel is a centre of arcane research that sits on the heights of the Graypeak Mountains in the Forgotten Realms (or any other mountain range of your pleasing, as location and campaign setting are not too important to play this particular D&D adventure).

5e D&D adventure 10th 11th level

Lavinia Brightswann… you can totally trust her!

The Citadel belongs to the Order of the Gossamer Robe mages, led by Eszteban the Great, however things are not all well in the Order. An ongoing row over intellectual sovereignty has seen the Citadel divide in two, with Eszteban locking himself in his central tower and protecting himself from the rest of the Order with a labyrinth of puzzles, traps and monsters. He believes his fellow mages are trying to poison him.

Depending on which adventure hook you use, your party might have been invited by the acting head of the Order, Lavinia Brightswann, a half elf mage who wears a black mask over one side of her face, and who claims Eszteban has gone mad. She needs the party to disable the labyrinth’s threats and hopefully save Eszteban from himself. Or otherwise the PCs may be driven by their own need for a powerful spell or ritual, kept in the upper reaches of the Citadel, and therefore feel the need to take on the labyrinth for their own purposes. In which case the rest of the Order will take a keen interest in their success.

I think one of the fun parts of this adventure is that each of the mages of the Order have their own motivations, from the ageing Eszteban, to the ambitious Lavinia, through to the infatuated Meredin, the loyal Baelgrak The Bronze, and the scheming dwarf mage Hrimmar Gimgil. There’s also the mystery of what happened to the missing-presumed-dead 6th member of the Order, whose tower now lies empty.

As for playability, after a tricky journey through the mountains, the PCs have a chance to meet all of the Order and delve into the Citadel’s internal politics, before they enter the labyrinth. Once they start their ascent of the Citadel, there’s a varied series of encounters to deal with, very much in the flavour of old school Dungeons & Dragons, with floor puzzles, riddles and magical guardians. The final (or more likely the penultimate fight) pits the PCs against shadowy version of themselves, which of course is about as even a fight as you can get, and as the DM I have to say it is a lot of fun using some of the party’s powers against them!

It’s a bit railroaded in the Citadel itself as I didn’t want to write a whole load of encounters that would never get played… and DM’s probably don’t want to prepare such encounters either, but I think the final resolution is very open and can be played out in a lot of different ways, depending on which of the mages the party side with, if any.

What Level Adventure Is It?

As I mentioned The Gleaming Cloud Citadel was written as a 10th to 11th level adventure for 5th edition, but – in order to broaden its playability – I recalibrated all the combats with options for 5th to 6th levels, and 7th to 9th levels. The only real difference of playing this scenario at lower levels is that the PCs won’t be able to take on the mages, which may actually add to the flavour, as they can’t just swing a sword at every problem they encounter.

New Spells

I felt it was important that, if I was going to create an Order of wizards dedicated to arcane research, that I should create the rules for a slew of new spells that might represent their body of work. This was a lot of fun, and, if you’ll permit me a little brag, I think I’ve got a good knack for crafting well balanced incantations that you can bring to your game. I named this body of spells The Discoveries, and part of the value of this adventure are the 29 new wizard spells you get with it. You can see a few samples on this blog post (although I polished them up a bit for publication).

Buy The Adventure

You can buy The Gleaming Cloud Citadel on the DM’s Guilds.

50% of the fee goes to the marketplace and 50% to the author. I’m hoping for some good sales to motivate me to find the time to write more in 2018.

If you do invest, please let me know how it goes for you and your party!

Review: Elminster’s Guide to Magic

If you’ve heard of the DMs Guild (an online marketplace for Dungeons & Dragons adventures, sourcebooks and supplements, written by everyone from Matt Mercer to yours truly), then you’ve probably heard of Elminster’s Guide to Magic. It’s been one of the best-selling products on the marketplace for some time now, with average review rating of over 4.5/5 at the time of publishing this post.

Having leafed through a copy recently I have to say I am not surprised in the slightest.

It’s a hefty tome (178 pages) of useful goodies, written by an experienced team of D&D creators, that includes:

  • 350+ new spells, including for bards, clerics, druids, paladins, rangers, sorcerers, warlocks and wizards (so for every spellcasting class basically!).
  • 50+ new magic items
  • A long list of magical trinkets
  • Lore about the magical factions of the Forgotten Realms
  • 8 new character archetypes.

That’s a lot of material right there, and exactly what many players, bored of casting thunderwave, haste and fireball are looking for.

The book is written in the voice of the sorcerer Ashemmon of Rhymanthiin, with the famous Elminster serving as a kind of editor, dropping in to make the odd droll remark or observation. Whilst it’s not written with quite the sparse craft and precision of a Wizards of the Coast official product, the prose is certainly better than you would expect of most community content and indeed rather funny at times. The formatting and artwork is also of high quality, giving the product a professional feel.

The best selling product on the DMs Guild is one to own

But let’s get to the meat already…

The New Spells

This book is all about the spells for me. As a player, learning the same old familiar incantations every day can get rather dull, whilst as a DM I want to be able to throw spells at PCs that they’ve never encountered before, thus bringing back some of the mystique and fear of enemy spellcasters back into the game. To this end I found plenty of new spells I would bring to my table. Ball lightning is a fun new way of blasting people (I think they actually converted it from an earlier edition of D&D), and one that carries on round after round, as your arcane artillery bounces around the battlefield. The spell freeze is so simple and brilliant that one wonders why it didn’t exist beforehand, abolish shadows is like light on steroids, and I like the cleric spell celestial fist – a damage dealing restrainer – a lot (although the saving throw once restrained should be Strength not Dexterity it seems to me!). Meanwhile spells like leaf into dagger and animal spy are hardly game changers, but have their charm (and uses).

Creating a spell is a tricky balancing business. It’s easy to get carried away and overpower them, whilst on the other hand, if the spell is any worse than those available who is going to bother to learn it? And by extension why bother create it? What is needed of course is new functionalities and subtle variations, operating at the same level of power as existing spells (at least those that are not grossly overpowered. I’m looking at you hypnotic pattern). If anything, my first impressions are that the publishers have erred on the side of caution and made their own creations a bit less powerful than the best available in the Player’s Handbook, rendering some of them redundant (to PCs at least. NPCs not driven to pick the optimal option every time could be perfect proponents of such spells, as per my comments above about throwing unfamiliar powers at parties). However I did as well find spells which seemed a little too powerful (at a glance at least). A few spells put me off by seeming too wordy and complicated, and there were many where, as a point of preference, I just didn’t like aesthetics of the spell’s effects (I could say the same of many in the Player’s Handbook as well!). A few could have been more accurately named.

If anything, rather than such a rich supply, I personally would have preferred a smaller tighter selection of spells that had been playtested to death. A bit like an album by your favourite artist, you’d prefer just the 5 or 6 great tracks to those same tracks, plus another half dozen that don’t stand out. Of course you can always discard what you don’t like… it’s just you need a bit more time to evaluate what’s hot and what’s not. Anyway considering the difficulty of pitching spells powers I think the publishers have done very well overall, with nothing falling too far either side of the mark (under vs overpowered) and plenty to get the creative juices flowing. It’s also worth noting that what I like and will use might be completely different to what someone else likes, so maybe we’ll forgive the publishers for opting for a high quantity product – it’s a more surefire way of providing something for everyone.

Magic Items (and trinkets)

I pretty much hate magic items as a rule. Not only do I dislike the high fantasy aesthetic, with players owning dozens of powerful arcane tools (give me a gritty Westerosi style setting instead please!), but they also unbalance play and detract from the much more satisfactory sensation of powering up via achieving new levels and experience-based abilities. But anyway, so as not to be a completely miserable bastard I took a look at what Elminster’s Guide to Magic has to offer on this front and found a few I really liked. Cat’s Eye Marble, conferring dark vision of 60ft is a lovely fix for the human in the party who has to lug a torch around every time they go underground, Leaf of Falling stops you having to learn feather fall every day (annoying use of a limited pool of prepared spells!), but a clear favourite is the Golden Tongue: This charm is the shape of a small golden tongue. It grants you advantage on Charisma (Persuasion) checks—however you are required to make your argument in rhyming couplets. If you fail to speak in rhyme when making the check, you take 1d8 psychic damage. Brilliant, that’s going in my next adventure for sure!

These were all labelled Wondrous Items, but there’s actually a list of Magical Trinkets that I like even more. Little treasures like a malachite figurine carved in the shape of a dragonfly, which flies around and kills any flies or mosquitoes in your presence and a crystal goldfish. When held, it enables you to hold your breath for 2 minutes longer can add fun and flavour to the game without any worry of unbalancing it. If nothing else they inspire the imagination!

Factions & Archetypes

I haven’t had time to go through all the factions and I’m not sure how many of them have been homebrewed vs. already alive in Realm’s lore (having taken up D&D again after a 20 years break, I’m seriously behind on my lore!), but anyway I do see some good material there for DMs to delve into for their campaigns. As for the new archetypes… it seems like homebrewing these are more or less an obsession for all DMs Guild creators, but they are almost always amongst the content I’m least likely to use. For one thing there are so many cool archetypes I haven’t had a chance to play in the Player’s Handbook and now in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything that there doesn’t strike me as any need for any more. The other is that these really do need more playtesting than a few rogue authors, no matter how experienced, can manage alone. WoTC have a massive team and vast community to draw on, and I don’t see myself playing anything other than their tried and tested archetypes, well ever, really. But maybe you’re different?

Other Stuff

There’s a few other bits and bobs in this supplement, such as a library of arcane texts (just for flavour), potential names of wizard towers, something about verbal components (turning the geek level right up to 11), and a pretty useful ‘Advice for Young Wizards’ section that most beginner to mid-level player can learn a few valuable lessons from.

Hipsters’ Conclusion

Elminster’s Guide to Magic is not perfect (although I suppose neither are the official WoTC products!) and you’re going to have do some sifting to separate the bits you like from the bits you don’t, and I sense a bit of tinkering here and there too, but given the depth and breadth of the content, for 15 dollars it has to be one of the best value-for-money products on the DMs Guild – if not the best. Every type of spellcaster is going to benefit from having a copy in their library, not just in terms of powering up, but in terms of unveiling exciting new possibilities. Meanwhile DMs who enjoy pitting their parties against nefarious evil spellcasters will love the looks of surprises on their PCs’ faces as they unveil new trick after new trick from up their baggy black sleeves. What’s more the material has a near infinite shelf life and is going to remain useful to you adventure after adventure, campaign after campaign. (Obviously when you buy an adventure you tend to only play it once!).

Buy It

You can buy Elminster’s Guide to Magic via the DMs Guild.

Finally, before you go, I have also homebrewed a few of my very own 5e spells for wizards which you can check out on this here blog. They will form part of a published adventure coming to the DMs Guild very soon!

Disclosure: I was gifted a free copy of this supplement. 

Hypnotic Pattern is Broken. Here’s How You Fix It!

So you’ve been playing some Dungeons and Dragons and one of your PCs keeps deciding the encounters before they’ve even started by pulling out a glowing stick from their components pouch and weaving the 3rd level illusion hypnotic pattern. Suddenly half the bad guys are standing limp-limbed and drooling on the battlefield, completely helpless as their buddies are butchered with ease by the adventuring party. The bad news for them is they’re next!

Hypnotic Pattern vs Fireball

Fireball is one of D&D’s most powerful spells relative to the spell slot required (…so powerful that some argue that the whole structure of player advancement in 5e is based around it. Every player class gets something awesome at 5th level to balance the wizard’s newfound access to this orc-incinerating fan fave), but against any challenge 2 level baddie or beyond, hypnotic pattern is considerably more powerful. Both are third level spells, but whilst shaving hit points off an ogre is all well and good, incapacitating them for an entire minute is several notches better. Fireball does have a slightly better range – 150 feet plays 120 feet, whilst its superior area of effect, a circle with 20 feet radius (1256 square feet area of effect), vs hypnotic pattern‘s 30 feet cube (900 square feet surface area), means that fireball is still the weapon of choice for mopping up mooks. However, where fireball starts to fade against tougher foes, hypnotic pattern is just as deadly to high level monsters as low level ones. Do you want to do 28 damage (14 on a save) to four giants or incapacitate two or three of them for a minute? It’s a no brainer.

More dangerous than fireball…

Hypnotic Pattern vs. Other Incapacitating Spells

We can find further proof that hypnotic pattern is an overpowered game design error when we look at it against similar ‘incapacitators’ that make up the 5e wizard’s spellbook… so let’s do that.

Tasha’s Hideous Laughter (1st level)

An underrated little spell, it effects one creature and confers both the prone and incapacitated conditions on a failed Wisdom saving throw. Its power is kept well in check by the fact that it requires concentration, and that the target can repeat its saving throw at the end of each of its turns. Interestingly the effects do not end automatically when the creature takes damage, but every time it takes a hit it can make an additional saving throw with advantage, so more or less they do in fact end when it takes a hit. Range is 30 ft.

Blindness / Deafness (2nd level)

A bit of damp squib, this is barely better than tasha’s hideous haughter, if at all. On a failed Constitution saving throw, it confers blindness on one creature within 30ft. The condition of blindness however still allows the opponent to attack (albeit with disadvantage) although the one major pro it has over THL is that damaging the creature doesn’t provoke an additional saving throw, meaning its open season for attack rolls. The victim however does get a repeat saving throw at the end of each turn though, meaning it’s unlikely to work for more than one or two rounds, making the duration of one minute more or less irrelevant. A minor pro is that it doesn’t require concentration. It could also be used creatively to intimidate someone, trick an troll into walking off a bridge or whatever… provided you can do so in 0-12 seconds.

Hypnotic Pattern (3rd level)

After a balanced first level spell and an underwhelming second level spell we make the jump to super-fucking-overpowered third level spell… from a range of 30 feet we suddenly rocket up to 120 feet, and from affecting just one creature we go to affecting anyone in a 30 foot cube. If you’re using a tabletop grid of 5 ft squares that’s 36 squares and up to 36 medium-sized creatures. But that’s not even the most overpowered part… the worst is that creatures affected by this spell get no repeat saving throw (Wisdom) at the end of their turn. They are incapacitated and charmed (sidenote: I’m not really sure how these two conditions are supposed to work in combination! The spell describes a ‘stupor’ and I wonder if the charm aspect is more aesthetic – creatures lulled into hypnosis – than a condition) and therefore can’t do anything for the spell’s duration, ie. one minute or 10 turns of combat. There is the proviso that a creature that takes damage is then freed from the spell’s effects, and that another creature can use an action to shake the creature out of their stupor… and finally the spell does require concentration, but still… this is not balanced.

You could say but a third level spell is supposed to be a lot more powerful than a 2nd level one, but then again you can cast blindness as a third level spell and you get to affect one extra person… not up to 35 more as with HP, and you’d still have the crappy range and repeated saving throws.

Meanwhile we’ll see further proof of unbalance when we look at the 4th level ‘incapacitator’ confusion.

Confusion (4th level)

We’ve just gone up a level in terms of spell slots but already the range has gone down to 90 feet, whilst the area of effect is now a 10 foot radius which equates to a surface area of effect of 314.16 square feet… so just a little more than one third of that of hypnotic pattern. That’s a massive downsize, when we should be expecting a massive upsize. Something’s wrong! Once more the effects hinge on a Wisdom saving throw. If failed the victim rolls a d10 to determine what random stuff it gets up to. I simplify but it basically has about 80% chance of losing its turn and 20% chance of being able to act normally (despite having just failed its saving throw). The duration of the spell is one minute, but again that’s irrelevant as the creature can make a repeat saving throw at the end of each of its turns.

In each of range, area of effect, power of effect and duration of effect confusion is an inferior spell to hypnotic pattern… and a massively inferior one at that. And by the way, confusion is not a bad spell at all! I would personally get rid of the table result where the creature behaves as normal (easily done, just roll a d8 on the table instead of a d10!), otherwise it feels pretty well balanced. Hypnotic pattern should probably be a 5th or spell as it stands, and even then it would be considerably more powerful than the 5th level hold monster .

Playing By The Rules

If, despite the irrefutable proof I’ve just given you that the spell is broken (which would be like believing The Force Awakens is a good film after reading my article on why it most definitely isn’t. I’m linking to it now because I’ve just been tortured by The Last Jedi… new film, same problems), isn’t enough for you to remove it from the the table you could try to deal with it via pedantic interpretation and/or enemy strategy. Starting with the former, the spell description says: You create a twisting pattern of colors that weaves through the air inside a 30-foot cube within range. The pattern appears for a moment and vanishes. Each creature in the area who sees the pattern must make a Wisdom saving throw.

It might depend on the circumstances but on a chaotic battlefield for example it would be fairly reasonable to judge that any creature in the area of effect might simply be looking the wrong way at the wrong ‘moment’. Roll for each creature and on a 5 or 6 they don’t even see the pattern and don’t have to roll a saving throw.

The enemy strategy approach would be to rain blows down on the spellcaster every time they cast it so that they lose concentration and the spell ends. If a PC is constantly using hypnotic pattern spread your bad guys apart and make sure they have spells and ranged weapons.

Hipster’s Rule Fix

How should hypnotic pattern work… here is my revised version.

Hypnotic Pattern (hipster remix)

3rd level illusion

Casting time: 1 action
Range: 60 feet
Components: S, M (a glowing stick of incense or a crystal vial filled with phosphorescent material)
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute

You create a twisting pattern of colors that weaves through the air inside a 20-foot cube within range. The pattern appears for a moment and vanishes. Each creature in the area who sees the pattern must make a Wisdom saving throw. On a failed save, the creature becomes charmed for the duration. While charmed by this spell, the creature is incapacitated and has a speed of 0.

At the end of each of its turns, an affected target can make a Wisdom saving throw. If it succeeds, this effect ends for that target. The spell also ends for an affected creature if it takes any damage or if someone else uses an action to shake the creature out of its stupor.

****

It’s still probably more powerful than confusion, and you might want to use my ‘pedantic interpretation’ above and rule that creatures in the area of effect who roll a 5 or 6 on a d6 are lucky enough not to see this momentary hypnotic weaving pattern.

Anyway hope that helps. If you love spells stay tuned because you’re going to love the next post, where I review Elminster’s Guide to Magic.

By the way I also homebrewed some spells you might like. They are part of a spellbook that in turn will form part of an adventure I intend to publish soon. Do follow on Facebook or subscribe to keep in touch…

Saboteur: A New Roguish Archetype by the Kind GM

So recently I got in touch with fellow DM, blogger and Rogue-lover, Chris from the Kind GM and he was nice enough to send me a free copy of his 5e homebrew Roguish archetype, the Saboteur, which he co-authored with his friend Anastasios. I quote:

A cloaked figure slinks down a dark alleyway, and soon after the building behind it explodes in flames. A man hidden high in a tree watches with a grin as a flurry of spikes erupt from the forest floor, impaling a group of bandits. Saboteurs are experts at constructing traps and various other mechanisms and substances that allow them to create mayhem without placing themselves in direct danger.

A kind of arcane terrorist, the Saboteur’s weapon of choice are the traps he (or she) carries around with him (or her… I’m just going to continue using masculine form, from now!), which number his Rogue level times two. The archetype lists eight different types of trap, such as the Blaster Bomb (think hand grenade), Fire Nova Mine (think flaming landmine) and Thunderblast Trap (think Thunderwave in mine form), and a 3rd level Saboteur knows how to construct three of them.

Deploying a trap takes one action, whilst restocking them takes a long rest (they work a bit like spell slots in that respect). A PC can deploy different types of triggers such as pressure plate, tripwire or timer (and when they reach 9th level a remote trigger).

The result is a sneaky bastard who can cause absolute havoc on the battlefield… especially if he is expecting you.

Pros

I think this is a highly original archetype, and a chance to play a completely different type of character than exists in the Player’s Handbook.

A lot of creativity has gone into the traps and as well I think it opens the path for a lot of creativity for the PC on how they would deploy their arcane snares and wreak maximum chaos.

The archetype is properly laid out in the form of an official Rogue archetype.

Cons

I have a few questions about the gameplay, and how it would pan out in a session. For example Chris and Anastasios write:

When someone aware of your traps triggers one of them, they make the saving throws for its effects with advantage.

But one imagines that if a creature spots a trap they would then take care not to trigger it. Also there is a DC calculator for trap saving throws, but not for spotting the traps. (One imagines it might be the same however).

Also I found the mechanic that traps are automatically restocked during a long rest and kept in a magic satchel a bit too convenient. It seems that arcane traps should take some time to construct and not be something that effectively construct themselves when you’re having a nice sleep. So maybe I’d have advocated a saboteur with less traps, that are more powerful, but kept in a normal satchel (Bags of Holding, which is effectively what these satchels seem to be, are something I loathe about D&D… but I’ll write about that another time). The traps needn’t be that big, especially as they seem to be constructed at least partially using magic, so I don’t see a need for an additional magical item to hold them in. Related to this point, I think a more accurate name for this class would be Arcane Saboteur.

Finally, whilst I feel the class is pretty balanced, I think at lower levels this class is going to feel a bit overpowered compared to other Rogues. Maybe the number of traps should be more in line with the number of spell slots of an Arcane Trickster.

Final Verdict

Overall this is a really fun archetype, that might need a tiny bit of fine-tuning in order to fit on your table. A lot of creativity has gone into it and if you’re looking to play a Rogue with new potential this could be just the product for you.

You can buy it on the DM’s Guild right here. Average rating is 4.5/5 and it costs just 99 cents, so a low risk investment.

I would also highly advise you to check out Chris’ blog, which has a tonne of useful reviews and extensive lists of 5th edition resources.

Pssst… if you love Rogues don’t forget to read about my homebrew 5e Assassins Guild (The White Scorpions), my sample Rogue Assassin and my guide on how to play a cold-blooded contractual killer!

Which is Best: Fireball vs. Lightning Bolt

A longterm pet peeve of mine from earlier versions of D&D that still finds grievance in 5th edition is that given the choice between learning fireball or lightning bolt you’d have to be crazy to opt for the latter. Whilst both do the same amount of damage (a hefty 8d6 to anyone in the area of effect, dex. save for half), fireball can be flung up to 150 feet and affects all those in a 20 foot radius (surface area = 1256 ft.). Lightning bolt emanates from your hands extending in a line 100 feet long and 5 feet wide (surface area = 500 ft). Basically, unless you plan on attacking a marching band, fireball is going to fry significantly more bad guys every time.

This for me equates to poor game design. If there’s no real choice to be made between two options then what’s the point in having two options instead of one? Even the major drawback of fireball – the fact that it sets alight flammable objects in the area that aren’t being worn or carried, is mimicked by lightning bolt, meaning there’s very few contexts indeed where the latter is more useful (facing creatures who are immune / resistant to fire would be the only really obvious one).

(Image sourced from here).

Evening Up The Score

How do I fix this as a DM and give PCs a real choice to make when choosing to learn / prepare one of the two spells over the other? Well one simple solution would be to reduce the damage of fireball to either 6 or 7d6 damage, a solution I rather like as the spell’s excessive damage is basically a mistake (it should probably be a 5th or 6th level spell!), that unbalances the game. However it’s a mistake that gamers loved so much that it stuck around (DM David has some interesting related reading on this topic).

If you’re a bit nervous about messing around too much with the damage of the game’s most iconic spell, then what you could do instead is pimp lightning bolt a bit by giving enemies in metal armour disadvantage on their saving throw when struck. A small change that makes a lot of sense in terms of realism and in the right circumstances could make lightning bolt even deadlier than fireball – and therefore a viable choice.

You could also rule that fireball alone sets alight flammable objects, giving lightning bolt two pros to balance the twin cons of a much more limited range and much smaller area of effect.

Like this? I’ve got tonnes of tips for DMs, like how to roll Insight (hint: get your screen ready) or how to fix the Lucky feat, so keep reading. Or go crazy and head to the right sidebar to become my, like, fifth subscriber… it’ll be almost like getting a personal letter from me every time I update the blog!

Group Stealth & Other Ability Checks

Something came up during my last D&D session that got me thinking. We were sneaking around on top of a mountain range, trying to avoid the watchful eye of various baddies and beasties in the vicinity. The DM ruled that my Rogue Assassin (with +14 stealth!) could make one check for the whole party to see if we succeeded, as he reasoned that I’d be able to signal to my companions when to crawl, when to duck down etc. etc.. That was nice him and I certainly didn’t argue, however I did think he was probably being a bit too generous.

A little Googling and revisiting the Player’s Handbook (p.175) reveals that the official rules for Group Checks are that “everyone in the group makes the ability check. If at least half the group succeeds, the whole group succeeds. Otherwise the group fails.” The handbook explains “in such a situation, the characters who are skilled at a particular task help cover those who aren’t.”

I like it I have to say. It’s quick and easy solution, and if fast gameplay is what you’re all about then I think it’s hard to improve on…

However, before I looked up the rules I already started to consider another option, and I think it’s worth sharing.

Group Ability Checks – Hipsters Variant ‘Take The Lead’ Rule

Considering the game scenario I already alluded to above, the way I think I would DM it would be that I would let the party elect the PC who is most skilled in stealth (or whatever) to take the lead and to roll first. If they are successful in their ability check – provided they are able to communicate with the rest of the party, via hand signs etc. – then they can confer advantage to the other PCs on their own roll. However if one fails the game is up.

In my imagination I can see a sneaky Rogue leading his group through the castle at night. Having already told them to keep their unblackened weapons sheathed and used a bit of cloth to muffle a particularly clanky piece of platemail, he leads them through the quiet courtyard, motioning them to stop and then duck, and cling to the darkest of the shadows. This explains why they get advantage on their check. What he can’t do however is prevent them from kicking a barrel of fish over the cobblestones, or tripping over their own cloak, which is why he can’t make one check on the whole party’s behalf.

I quite like this mechanic because it feels a bit more realistic, and with more individual player agency than with the official rules that lump everyone together and don’t punish failed rolls. There’s a clear benefit from having at least one expert in the party, but overall it’s harder for the party to mask the weaknesses of their companions. It also means that the larger group, the harder it is to move stealthily, whereas in the official rules sneaking around with three people of mixed ability is just as hard or easy as sneaking around in a party of 103.

Does this ‘Take The Lead’ mechanic work for other group skills checks? Maybe. A good climber can lead the way up a steep rocky incline showing those that follow the best hand and footholds, giving them advice / encouragement and generally making their lives easier. It would make sense therefore, if this ‘activity leader’ (for want of a better phrase) could confer advantage to others less skilled. In this case, assuming the climbers aren’t roped together, if one fails it wouldn’t mean they all fail.

It might need some more playtesting but hey, I just put it out there… it’s up to you if you decide if you want to use it in your game! But if you do, let me know in what situation and whether it worked. That’s the comment section right there ↓ 🙂

If you liked this idea maybe you will like my rule on what I call Dungeons and Dragons ‘technical proficiencies‘.

Is Paladins’ Divine Smite Overpowered?

Regular readers of this blog (hypothetical beings of extreme awesomeness) will know that I like to have a little bitch and moan about elements of the game that – in my gaming experience at least – have proved overpowered, creating imbalance in the gameplay.

Under my probing microscope I’ve analysed and dismantled the lucky feat and come up with ways of dealing with problematic spells like banishment and counterspell. In fact I’ve been so efficient in dealing with the peccadillos of 5th edition that I’m surprised Mr. Crawford hasn’t looked me up and offered me a job on the 6e team. It’s duncan@hipstersanddragons.com in case you’re trying to reach me Jeremy.

Today’s topic is a pet peeve of mine: Divine Smite.

I once made the mistake of asserting that the Paladin class is overpowered on a large Facebook forum and, whilst a few people heartily concurred with me, the majority shot me down with lots of assumptions about how I was playing the game all wrong, but little in the way of convincing argument. Since then I have detected a massive communal Paladin love-in with both players and game designers alike, which might account for why this class is the only one that has it all in their locker: fighting ability, spellcasting, some of the strongest features/powers in the game and – in the Divine Smite ability – the potential to do mega damage.

Every 5e Paladin ever… (Image from Orclabs.)

The Paladin class in general I’ll bitch about in a separate post, but let’s take a specific look at Divine Smite (p.85 Player’s Handbook). Using a 1st level spell slot you can 2d8 damage extra damage with a melee attack that hits, and an extra d8 on top of that for every spell slot above 1st you are willing to expend.

At first it doesn’t look outrageous. After all you have to sacrifice a spell slot, but why it turns out being too powerful is because it’s a melee attack and spell attack combined. It allows you to effectively cast a high damage spell without expending an extra action and with no saving throw, and in fact once the Paladin gets multiple attacks he can in effect have two melee attacks and cast the equivalent of two spells all in one round. The result is that a Paladin at 9th level attacking with a longsword can do a total of 10d8 damage (+ str modifier doubled) against a baddie in one round with no save (ie. two attacks at 1d8 [longsword] plus 4d8 [3rd level spell slot] each). If his opponent is undead – and who hasn’t fought in a campaigns where every foe was undead? – that goes up to 12d8 total. When the Paladin gets improved Divine Smite at 11th level he could deal 14d8 damage in one round to an undead foe. In all these cases he has to hit with both his melee attacks, but by 9th level that’s pretty likely against most monster ACs.

After that the 9th level Paladin can use up two of his 2nd level spell slots to do another 8d8 (10d8 if undead) the following round, and then back that up with another 7d8 (9d8) in the third round of combat, and then 6d8 (8d8) and still have a spell slot left. Which basically means that one character of the party gets to take down the biggest monster of the day every day, whilst the others twiddle their thumbs. Which is just a bit boring, if you’re not the one playing the Paladin.

The only thing vaguely comparable in the game is the Rogue’s sneak attack, but that can only be dealt once a round, even if the Rogue gets a second attack (which he might if they use their bonus action to attack with an off hand weapon), meaning at 9th level a Rogue is limited to 6d6 damage (1d6 shortsword + 5d6 bonus damage). Of course the Sneak Attack never runs out, unlike spell slots, but unlike smite it does rely on the right circumstances (having advantage, or an ally distracting the target) and is pretty much the only thing the Rogue has going for them vs. the Paladin’s durability and other divine powers and spellcasting options.

Maybe if your Dungeon & Dragoning only consists of waking up in the tavern and then fighting a large and unlikely succession of monsters on the road day after day (so DnD 1.0!) it might not prove to be too overpowered, as the spell slots would get burned up after one or two combats. But if you just fight two or three times in an adventuring day it basically means the Paladin in the party will be deciding the most important battle of the day with Divine Smite every time.

Hipster Rules Fix

Is there an easy fix? I would suggest two or three things that could easily reduce the impact of Divine Smite without Paladin PCs feeling they are getting nerfed.

The first would be limit its use to one time a round, like Sneak Attack. That means they can still do the same damage per spell slot expended but – in the case of fighting one big bad boss – not before at least some of the other PCs have a chance to contribute to the fight, as well as letting the big bad boss actually have a chance to show off his own abilities, making for a tenser, better fight.

It would also mean less dice rolling per round, something that has a negative effect on gameplay as others look at their watches while the Paladin PC finishes calculating the massive damage of their first smite of the round and then gathers up all the d8s on the table for the second… super tedious!

(I’ve just considered the possibility of a Paladin using an off hand weapon as a bonus action and getting a third smite per round… *shudder!*).

I would also suggest that a Paladin should only be able to use a maximum of half their spell slots of any given level to deal Divine Smites, rounding up. So a 9th level Paladin could do 2 x 1st level smites, 2 x 2nd level smites and 1 x 3rd level smite. This has the added benefit of forcing the Paladin PC to be more interesting and use some of their actual spells rather than just turning into a damage dealing machine.

Also you should definitely rule that Divine Smite can only be invoked using Paladin spell slots, something that is not clear from the Player’s Handbook. Unless you’re trying to break the game that is a no brainer, as how could you channel divine power via picking up a spot of sorcery?

I’ve also seen a lot of people on forums mention that they always wait until this score a critical hit to use their smites. As a DM I would rule that Divine Smite damage doesn’t double up on crits… scoring a critical hit is a physical thing, striking the enemy in just the right place at just the right time, and it doesn’t make sense that divine energy would in anyway be reliant on that. In my imagination at least the righteous power of the god is summoned and flows through the Paladin’s weapon in relation to the Paladin’s spiritual power (ie. what spell slot he extended) and it flows in the same strength no matter how sweetly or not the blade strikes. But maybe that’s just me being a spoilsport.

Alternatively you could rule that the PC has to declare if he will use Divine Smite should his attack hit and what spell slot he will expend in that case. This would rule out cynical attempts to do insane damage, but still allow for the fun of a mega critical hit.

Ok hopefully these fixes help balance the game, whilst still keeping your Paladin PC more than potent enough to wreak havoc in the next session.

While you’re here did you check out my post on phobias? It’s a fun way to add some flavour to your PC! And don’t forget never to do these 11 irritating thing as a D&D player!

The White Scorpions: An Assassins’ Guild (5e D&D)

A bit like a football defense, festival ticket system, or wedding seating plan, crime is better when it’s organised. The lone wolf assassin may be good at the actual art of killing people, but who answers his emails, does his PR and marketing and collects his invoices? If he lives anywhere in the multiverse, then the answer should be his guild.

Admin. aside, there’s a reason every Dungeons & Dragons player should sign up their Rogue Assassin to a local guild, and that’s because a well thought out guild adds so much flavour to your PC, as they become part of a credible entity with a mission statement, code of conduct, mode of operations, insignia and other fantasy lore that will make roleplaying said character that much more enjoyable.

Every Dungeons & Dragons player should sign up their Rogue Assassin to a local guild… because a well thought out guild adds so much flavour to your PC, as they become part of a credible entity with a mission statement, code of conduct, mode of operations, insignia and other fantasy lore…

One of the first things I did after I was given an Assassin to play in my first 5e D&D session (after a 20 year hiatus from the game!) was start to work on the background of my cold-blooded killer. I asked myself many questions, such as: what could have happened to get her into the killing game? How did she attain her knowledge of stealth, poison and dealing deadly blows? But perhaps the most formative question I asked was how could she still be a nice person to be around, if slitting people’s throats was her profession? I didn’t want her to be that forever menacing character of slim principles who none of the other PCs could trust, mostly because it’s no fun for the rest of the party wondering if their beloved character who they’ve been playing for months / years is likely to be poisoned in the night by someone who is supposed to be on their side (this inter-party tension might be fun for a short time, but it soon wears thin!), but also because I myself prefer to play D&D as a team game, using our collective minds and abilities to overcome obstacles and challenges that come before us.

In short I wanted to play a good-aligned assassin.

So I asked myself, who kills without mercy, using any means necessary, but still has their principles and moral high ground. The answer was: vigilantes. People with a belief system, that in their mind at least, vindicates them going above and beyond the law to deliver their own vision of justice. And from this seed The Order of the White Scorpions were born.

As someone who enjoys attention to detail I created enough lore about the White Scorpions to publish a small book… and so that’s exactly what I’ve done, in the hope that others will enjoy playing an agent of this guild as much as I have over the last year or two.

The guide is on sale via the DMsGuide for the princely sum of $2.99. For the price of a cheap coffee here’s what you get:

What do you get with this e-book?

  • An introduction to The White Scorpions
  • A history of The White Scorpions
  • A mission statement
  • Secret signs for identifying one another
  • Three Maxims
  • Official Motto
  • Unofficial Motto
  • Organisational structure of the guild
  • Details on the Order’s secret tongue / cant
  • Favoured killing methods
  • Details on Necrodicta (death sentences)
  • Details and rules for a new poison – Deathstalker Scorpion Venom
  • A special dagger owned by each agent in the Order
  • Training methods
  • Scary initiation ceremony (including gameplay rules)
  • Duties, rules and regulations – a table of rules and punishments
  • Role of religion in the Order (and a prophecy)
  • Rules for adventuring as a White Scorpion
  • A fully developed new background: Trainee Assassin (for those characters who wish to join the guild at Level 1).
  • Character backgrounds and stat blocks of four prominent guild members, including Grandmaster Oblivion, and Xenia ‘Nightsting’ Zanetti.
  • Dungeon Master’s Class – 15 strong adventure hooks, and some general tips for bringing an assassin’s backstory into the game.

Who should buy this e-book and why?

1) Anyone playing a Rogue Assassin in 5th edition D&D. Because, for some loose change, you’ll be able to add so much more depth to your character and increase the amount of fun you have at the table with your PC.

2) Dungeon Masters with a Rogue Assassin in their party, especially if your adventure hasn’t begun yet. The Adventure Hooks section of the guide is very thorough and gives you 15 ideas you incorporate or base an adventure around, along with some advice on DMing with a Rogue Assassin at the table.

>>> Buy The White Scorpions Assassins Guild for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons <<<

This is my first ever product, so I’m excited to release it online into the www.ilderness. And if I make a few sales here and there I might even be able to carve out the time to write more material!

Is The Lucky Feat Broken?

I’ve prefaced many an article with how well-balanced I think the 5e rules are, and the more I play, the more I realised how spot on WOTC got things… well apart from Counterspell, healing rules, Paladins (more on them another time!), and a few other bits and pieces.

One – inexplicable – thing that blows my mind though is how the Lucky feat survived playtesting. Every single one of the four Dungeon Masters in my group has banned it from the table (the only change to the official rules we all agree on!); and if you do allow it you’ll find that once one player has it, every other player will cotton on how powerful it is and select it too, meaning a highly irritating slew of (unnecessary and overly influential) extra dice rolls during every session.

That time you rerolled your charisma check…

Before I complain any further, let’s take a look at it (p.167, Player’s Handbook):

***

Lucky

You have inexplicable luck that seems to kick in at just the right moment.
You have 3 luck points. Whenever you make an attack roll, an ability check, or a saving throw, you can spend one luck point to roll an additional d20. You can choose to spend one of your luck points after you roll the die, but before the outcome is determined. You choose which of the d20s is used for the attack roll, ability check, or saving throw.

You can also spend one luck point when an attack roll is made against you. Roll a d20, and then choose whether the attack uses the attacker’s roll or yours.
If more than one creature spends a luck point to influence the outcome of a roll, the points cancel each other out; no additional dice are rolled. You regain your expended luck points when you finish a long rest.

***

For newbies at first glance perhaps it doesn’t seem too overpowered… after all there are plenty of great feats, and your other option of course is to add 2 to a key ability score that will get you plenty of extra pluses as you go.

However consider this. Inspiration (p. 125, PH), which gives a PC advantage on a key roll during an adventure, is supposed to represent that magical stroke of luck heroes get during crucial moments. That fortune of the brave that helps ensure when they jump from a burning building with the true-born infant king in their arms they don’t splat onto the floor, but expertly roll with the fall, cradling the babe in their arms. Inspiration is a hard earned reward (p.240, DMG), given sparingly to PCs, usually for true-to-character roleplaying (especially roleplaying that puts one at a disadvantage), major goal achievement or epic heroism. As it’s only really designed to settle that adventure-hinging moment, not consistently influence play, only one inspiration “point” can be “stored” at a time. All-in-all it works perfectly as a game mechanic – it’s a powerful reward, for extraordinary deeds, to be used at a key juncture in your party’s story.

And then in walks Lucky feat… and ruins everything.

To select Lucky feat is to essentially be granted unearned inspiration three times a day, and goes against everything the game designers planned for inspiration itself. In fact it’s several times more powerful than three times inspiration because, unlike with inspiration, which you need to declare you’re using before you roll, with Lucky you can wait until the die is cast to decide if you’re going to force a re-roll. That makes it worth more like 5 or 6 inspiration “points” a day, as you get to use it only when you’re sure you need it.

To select Lucky feat is to essentially be granted unearned inspiration three times a day, and goes against everything the game designers planned for inspiration itself.

The result is that any PC with the Lucky feat dictates their own success all too often, in not just a key juncture, but in three big moments a day, when usually they would have failed, perverting the flow of the game in their favour, and often isolating them from ever having anything bad happen to their character. No one likes failing a crucial saving throw, attack roll or ability check, but failure, and the chance of failure, is also a lot of what makes D&D fun – and how you deal with it as a party is similarly often what makes the game memorable and unpredictable. I probably don’t need to tell you either that the larger your chance to failure, the more fun success is when it happens… something else that gets lost when you try to stack the odds.

The exact extend of how overpowered / broken the feat is does depend a fair bit on how many encounters you tend to have at your table a day. My group tend to favour a more realistic flavour of D&D, meaning just one or two encounters during your average day of adventuring at which point Lucky borders on ridiculous in its ability to define key moments. However even if you play hack and slash dungeons with multiple encounters a day I would vote taking Lucky off the table… aside from being overpowered it doesn’t add any flavour at all – it’s a bland catch all that makes you more powerful in any field at any time –  and is essentially a cop out for players unable to deal with adversity.

Lucky Feat variants

If you want to keep Lucky but fix it somehow, here are some suggestions on how to deal with it.

Option 1. Have the player roll a d4 minus 1 after a long rest to determine how many luck points they have for the day ahead (ie. they roll a 4 they have 3 luck points, a 3 = 2 luck points, a 2 = 1, and roll a 1 and they have zero luck points). This gives them an average of 1.5 luck points a day, instead of 3… and this way you get to test if they really are that lucky!

Option 2. Alternatively, if you are a bit more generous than I am, then you could have them roll a d3 simply, giving them 1-3 luck points a day and an average of 2.

Option 3. The PC still gets 3 luck points a day, but instead of forcing a reroll they have the option, after the dice is rolled (but before outcome is determined) to use a luck point to add 1d4 to their original roll. This means that three times a day the PC can turn a narrow failure into a narrow success – with a bit of luck! This better represents what it means to be lucky in my opinion, and is probably how the rules should have been written. It’s still a massively powerful feat, but it can’t turn extreme failure into victory any more.

 

Right, I actually really love feats in general, and they are an awesome way to power up your character whilst giving them more flavour at the same time… so I’ll be back with some more thoughts on best feats for different classes soon! Stay tuned.

The Assassin: Xenia “Nightsting” Zanetti

Let’s talk about my first ever 5th Edition character… one that has proved a tonne of fun to play over the last year or so, thanks to not only her roguish abilities (ie. sneaking around backstabbing unsuspected guards) but also her handiness in a fight and more recently her spellcasting ability, which I’ve used to cleverly (IMHO!) complement her efficiency as an agent of death.

Dear multiverse, meet Xenia ‘Nightsting’ Zanetti, a half-elven Rogue Assassin.

Xenia had it pretty tough as a kid. The unwanted daughter of an elf, raped by a human, she was left in a basket at a human orphanage with a bag of guilt-laced gold that didn’t make the orphanage owners treat her any better. They sold the pretty half elf girl for a tidy sum to an unscrupulous slave master with a lascivious eye. She was still a girl when the same master began paying her nocturnal visits. When one day she resisted his advances he smashed her face with an iron sconce, breaking her cheekbone and leaving a massive ugly gash under her right eye. She ran away, risking death, and lived on the streets, until she was found half dead in the gutter by an elderly man who would become her benefactor. Seeing something in this slim but fierce strapling, he enrolled her in a society that could help her… a society that specialised in just vengeance: The White Scorpions. Here she trained in the art of dealing death, surviving the terrifying initiation ceremony to become a fully fledged killer. Her training was complete with the termination of her inaugural victim, the slave master who had raped and abused countless times.

Particularly deadly at night, when her elvish dark vision comes into play, Nightsting (as she became known) subsequently infiltrated the Purple Dragons Army where she served as the captain of a unit of archers, before (and this is when I started playing her) being integrated into a party of adventurers known as the Shadowdale Allstars to spy on a suspicious Dwarven cleric called Leif. Leif has long since died, but the Shadowdale Allstars continue to battle the forces of evil, with Xenia by their side. She has never forgotten her allegiance to the White Scorpions.

Above you can see the stats for Xenia at 8th level, by which time she is 5th level Rogue Assassin and 3rd level Wizard. I’ve really enjoyed my decision to multiclass as a wizard because it opens up so many possibilities and allows for a lot of creativity in gameplay situations, be that combat or deception. Misty step is brilliant for positioning yourself behind an enemy in the blink of an eye… or for teleporting out of trouble, shield has saved my ass so many times, giving me AC 23 for one round when I really need it (and cast with just a reaction), I probably don’t need to sell you on the advantages of being able to turn invisible when required, whilst minor illusion (improved version I specialised in illusion) is perfect for distracting guards on those rare – but always crucial – moments you fail a Stealth check. The low level wizard spells are like a toolbox that help you do your job, as well as open up boundless new possibilities beyond hiding and sneak attacking.

Of course the more obvious option for those that want to play a spellcasting Rogue is to select Arcane Trickster archetype, instead of Assassin. The main advantage here being that you gain spells whilst still increasing your Rogue level, thus continuing to increase the damage you do on Sneak Attacks (as well as gaining other Rogue abilities). However you don’t get the all important Assassinate skill if you choose this path…

Seeing how effective magic has made Xenia I continued to level up as a Wizard until 10th level (5 Rogue / 5 Wizard) at which point she received two level 3 spell slots, enabling her to cast some pretty serious spells such as fireball, fly and counterspell. Major image is also handy if you bring a creative mind to it… summoning an illusory pit, wall, fire, monster or bridge can be pretty effective in the right circumstances.

Since then Xenia took advantage of a power vacuum in the Dalelands to become the Lord Commander of the Purple Dragon Army, and so for principally roleplaying reasons I multiclassed again, this time as a Fighter. She now wears specially tailored half plate mail suited to her new role in society, and now when she uses her bonus action to attack as a dual wielder she is able to add her Dexterity bonus to damage rolls as per the fighting style ‘Two Weapon Fighting’ (p72. of PH) – something which I appreciate a lot.

Ok, I hope this post wasn’t too self-indulgent… but perhaps if you’re thinking about playing a Rogue Assassin in 5th edition this has given you a few ideas. For a detailed look at how to build an effective PC of this class check out my previous post, where I look at what races, stats, proficiencies, feats and equipment I think work best, and discuss the importance of coming up with a coherent back story.

Want to avoid being one of those really irritating gamers and play an assassin of good alignment, who your party members can trust? Then no problems, the Order of the White Scorpions – to which Xenia ‘Nightsting’ Zanetti belongs – are an assassins’ guild compromising of fanatical vigilantes of top moral fibre. I’m putting the finishing touches to an ebook about the Order, which will be available to buy at a very friendly price on the DMs Guild soon! For the price of a coffee you’ll get the lowdown on this secret society, including recruiting and training methods, initiation ceremony, rules and regulations, a new poison, secret tongue and guild motto. Also included are a bespoke Background, plus adventure hooks for your DM to work your back story into their campaign.

Stay tuned!

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