Hipsters & Dragons

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

How To Be A Great D&D Player

So you read my post on things you should never do when playing Dungeons & Dragons? Of course you did, you’re a considerate gamer pitching for the peak of perfectionism at the table.

Now, how about things you actively should be doing? It’s been a while in coming, but finally here is my list of exemplary roleplaying behavioural traits to ensure you’re the first to be invited to any session.

Don’t expect anything here about optimisation or rules mastery, because being a great Dungeons and Dragons player is not about creating powerful PCs, devising smart-ass strategies or completing manifold quests – it’s about contributing positively to how much fun everyone has at the table.

10 Ways To Be An Awesome D&D Player

1. Make a Memorable Character…

Whilst combat and puzzles abound in Dungeons & Dragons, despite these strategic elements, at its heart D&D remains a roleplaying game. The game’s great players walk the worlds of the multiverse in the boots of unforgettable characters, heroes that we can visualise and believe in – often, by the way, more through their flaws and weaknesses than their actual heroic traits. Take the time to really think about who your character is and how they behave, fashioning a credible backstory that explains their nature and their values. Fifth edition is brilliant at encouraging this, and simply using the backgrounds in the Player’s Handbook, and the readymade traits, ideals, bonds and flaws, will give you loads of amazing material to work with; while considering your character’s childhood, education, employment, love life, as well as any key defining moments, will help you flesh out a truly 3d personality. This in turn brings flavour to the game, gives the DM plenty of adventure hooks to work with, and makes it easier for other players to understand and interact with your character.

The Hipsters are all smiles at the start of the session

2. …That Fits Into the Party

When starting a new campaign I like to get in contact with the other players on the table and check what character class they intend to play. I then usually choose a class that gives some balance to the party. If we already have a wizard and a bard, do we really need a sorcerer as well? The four unofficial, but widely accepted, roles of D&D are ‘tanks’ (usually martial classes that soak up enemy hits), ‘casters’ (wizards etc who do mass damage), ‘healers/buffers’ (clerics and bards who support the party with healing magic and support spells) and ‘skills monkeys’ (rogues who disarm traps and pick locks). Whilst you can rarely have enough tanks, and no one complains about having extra healers, it can be frustrating when two or more players are competing in the caster or skills monkeys roles. In general you need at least one of each to make a well-rounded party that will fare well in most classic D&D adventures.

3. …And Doesn’t Steal (All) the Limelight

I am a bit of power gamer, I have to admit, plus I like to play flamboyant, over-confident assholes (they have all the best lines)… BUT it’s really important, whoever you play, that you don’t place yourself at the centre of every situation. Because when you do so you’re effectively stealing game time from your fellow players. Whilst there are naturally louder and quieter personalities at the table, just because one person shouts out at the first opportunity, whilst another patiently waits to hear the DM and the rest of the party out, doesn’t mean the quieter one doesn’t have anything to say at all. They nearly always have their own opinion, plan or course of action in any given situation, so if you’re a naturally gregarious person just be sure you’re giving the less boisterous party members plenty of space to express themselves.

Preparing to share the limelight

4. Ask Your Fellow PCs Their Opinion

Speaking of which, when was the last time you stopped to ask others for their thoughts, or their proposed course of action? Often we naturally get carried away and speak directly to the DM, telling them what our PC is going to do… without consulting anyone else. But D&D is a team sport, the ultimate goal of which is the involvement and enjoyment of everyone. So next time you’re at the table and a problem presents itself, ask a player who hasn’t said anything for a while, what they think, and go from there. (Note: DMs, you have even more opportunity to ensure that everyone is involved, by going around the table and asking everyone in turn what they are thinking, or what their PC is doing. Especially if you see some players are being left out and not getting involved enough).

5. Make Plans Based on Others’ Abilities

So you’ve tracked the hydra to its lair, discovered the back entrance and rolled a successful Nature check to recall that doing some fire damage each round will be key to winning the battle. Now it’s time to plan the great assault. Yes you could just go in there and smite the shit out of it because you’re playing an overpowered paladin, but you’ll prove a lot more popular if you not only canvass everyone else’s opinion on the best course of action (as per above point), but even better suggest ways of bringing other PCs’ skills and abilities to the fore within your battle strategy. Giving everyone an important job in the fight to come will make it an unforgettable encounter. Do note though, some players don’t like being told how to use their powers… make sure any suggestion is just that. Don’t make everyone else the pawns in your masterplan, without any free will or creative input.

I’ve got a cunning – team – plan!

6. Get Emotionally Invested in the Other PCs Too

Caring what happens to your character is what makes D&D such an emotional and tense game. You want them to succeed and to grow, and whilst you’re willing to throw them into some risky situations (they are heroes after all!), you really really don’t want them to die. You’ve got to know them so well that you care about them and will miss them if they’re gone. But what about if you start caring for other people’s characters as well? Then you feel even more tension and even more involvement in the game, as you’re not only waiting with nervous anticipation during your turn, but during others’ turns as well… will that rakish but loveable rogue pass their saving throw against the dragon’s breath weapon or is he about to become swashbuckler toast!? Not only that but caring about the other PCs in your party will foster a sense of teamwork and improve everyone’s enjoyment of the game. Some tips on how to get invested in the other PCs on the table would be a) ask them about their PC’s backstory (do this in character for even more effect!) b) create roleplaying opportunities that allow others to get in character c) thank a PC (in character) when they save your life, remember it, and make it part of their relationship. That’s the kind of thing that builds bonds, especially if you are roleplaying well and not just treating combat as a mechanical exercise of different entities reducing one another’s hit points to zero. One other cool thing I did recently was link my PC’s backstory with another’s (I should note here, this was my friend Mark’s idea!), so from the beginning of the campaign we had a tie and some mutual emotional investment that build extra interest in the game.

7. Be Prepared / Equipped

There’s nothing worse (there are in fact millions of things worse, but still…) than arriving for a much-anticipated D&D session and then wasting the first half an hour as more as people start to research the ramifications of levelling up their character. No they don’t have a Player’s Handbook, nor a pencil, nor an eraser. Similarly you reach the last PC in the initiative chain and they still haven’t figured out what they are going to do, and start canvassing the table for their opinions on various spells the mechanics of which they haven’t bothered to look up until now. Of course we all need a bit of thinking space from time to time, and a chance to refer to the rulebooks, and certainly newbies can be considered exempt from this point of etiquette, but when you’re an established player knowing your character’s main abilities and spells should be a given, and arriving with your character sheet, and your own pencil, eraser and preferably dice and Player’s Handbook, should not be too much to ask either. (When I turn up to football practice I bring my shorts and boots, and don’t turn up late and then hope someone else has a spare pair!).

This guy prepared for hours, and you didn’t even bring a pencil…!?

8. Concede the Point

It’s fine to argue with the DM, up to a point. When a ruling goes against you make your case, without getting angry or confrontational. Hopefully the DM will be flexible to your point of view. But understand as well, that in this abstract game of imagination what one person sees happening is quite different to what another might conceive… and ultimately the one thing that ruins the game for everyone is a lot of protracted arguments with the DM… so if the DM ain’t for changing their mind, just accept the decision (you don’t have to agree with it!) and get on with things. As a DM when I get in these situations I find a good compromise is a roll… if for example a player thinks he has line of sight through a dense forest to cast a spell, but you disagree, give them a Perception check with a tough DC, instead of a flat no.

9. Cut the DM Some Slack

Speaking with my DM hat on now, most of us are not Matt Mercer, and not even close. We make mistakes, get frustrated, make bad calls etc.. But we are also the guys and girls that make the game happen in the first place, and there’s a lot to be said for that. The hours and dedication it takes to be the DM often get taken for granted. You would never accept an invitation to a friend’s party and then complain the beers they provided weren’t cold enough, the company didn’t do it for you, and you didn’t agree with their music choice. Sometimes, what you thought was going to be a legendary party turns out to be few dudes drinking cheap beer around the kitchen table, but that’s life. You have to accept when the DM doesn’t manage to bring the A game, and be content with the fact that you’re still having fun with your friends, and that the next one will most likely be awesome.

Offering to host on your roof terrace with views of Sagrada Familia will win you many friends

10. Show Some Love & Manners

Related to the above, it never hurts to thank the DM for preparing and running the session – and often that alone is enough to motivate them to keep doing so. Bringing food and drinks to share, maybe even paying for the DM’s takeaway pizza between the players, as well as offering to host the session at your house occasionally are all examples of great etiquette amongst D&D players.

So there you are… follow these rules to become the most popular gamer in town. And if this list seems a bit intimidating, don’t worry, I’ve broken all these rules myself many times and haven’t been kicked out of my gaming group (yet!). But it behoves us all to keep on improving, so I hope this post inspires you to become the best possible roleplayer you can be.

And make sure you share it with the other people at your table, so it’s not just you upping your game!

As I mentioned earlier, I also wrote a post of things a D&D player should never do, which is also worth a read.

Finally I compiled all my player tips (so far) on this page. Subscribe in the sidebar to ensure you don’t miss the next post.

Identifying Magic Items (with Arcana)

Recently the DM of our group has been insisting on us using the spell identify before we can use the magic items that we’ve been finding on our dungeon crawls.

Frustrating as hell, but it kind of makes sense. Just because you’ve turned up a fancy-looking wand, ring or weapon in a treasure chest, doesn’t mean you should be able to seamlessly brandish it in your next battle as if you crafted it yourself. Hell, why should you even know it’s magical in the first place?

Anyway, given that there are quite a few magic items in our current campaign, and I’m now carting around at least two that I don’t have the foggiest about, I thought I’d do some research on what the official rules say, and maybe as well homebrew some rules about how Arcana checks could be used in the identification process (and see if my DM agrees!).

Official Rules

On page 136 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide it states:

The identify spell is the fastest way to reveal an item’s properties. Alternatively, a character can focus on one magic item during a short rest, while being in physical contact with the item. At the end of the rest, the character learns the item’s properties, as well as how to use them. Potions are an exception; a little taste is enough to tell the taster what the potion does.

Sometimes a magic item carries a clue to its properties. The command word to activate a ring might be etched in tiny letters inside it, or a feathered design might suggest it’s a ring of feather falling.

Wearing or experimenting with an item can also offer hints about its properties. For example, if a character puts on a ring of jumping, you could say, “Your steps feel strangely springy.” Perhaps the character then jumps up and down to see what happens. You then say the character jumps unexpectedly high.

VARIANT: MORE DIFFICULT IDENTIFICATION
If you prefer magic items to have have a greater mystique consider removing the ability to identify the properties of a magic item during a short rest, and require the identify spell, experimentation, or both to reveal what a magic item does.

So there you go… on the one hand the “a character can focus on one magic item during a short rest… At the end of the rest, the character learns the item’s properties, as well as how to use them” does seem all a bit too convenient. A cop out for lazy game play. Whilst on the other hand, the official variant rule seems a bit too restrictive. What if no one in the party has identify for example?

Arcana Checks

For me the chance to identify a magical object with a successful Arcana check is the best compromise between the official rules and the official variant. Everyone loves a dice roll, whilst having to rely on the wizard, bard or cleric of divination (the only three classes to have access to identify, that I can see) to cast a spell can be tedious.

Identify is a ritual at least, meaning the caster doesn’t need to spend a spell slot, so there’s no issue with managing spell casting resources, but the scenario of not having one of those three classes in your party (as we currently don’t) is frustrating to say the least.

Regarding the use of Arcana, the Player’s Handbook (p.177) has the following to say…

Your Intelligence (Arcana) check measures your ability to recall lore about spells, magic items, eldritch symbols, magical traditions, the planes of existence, and the inhabitants for those planes.

So using this skill in these circumstances does seem a good fit.

arcana identify magic items

Finally, a freaking label…

How might this work in practice? First I would say that a PC has to spend at least a minute carefully examining an object, and then I’d have them roll an Arcana check, and have a sliding scale of difficulty. Generally speaking I’d use the following scale, with each DC checkpoint passed garnering more information about the item.

DC 10 – the PC is confident the item is magical, but is unable to ascertain its nature.

DC 15 – the PC is able to guess the rough properties of the item, and may attempt to use it. However it does not know how many charges it has, and may not necessarily be able to work out the command word just yet, if it has one. More likely he or she knows what will happen when the command word is uttered, but will need another Arcana roll (once per rest) to correctly guess what it is.

DC 20 – the PC recognises the item and after a short period of experimentation (a short rest) is able to use its full powers.

Natural 20 or DC 25 and above – the PC recognises the item and can use its full powers immediately. You may even rule they are able to attune to the item straight away.

I’ve seen a couple of more rigid tables online, in various forums, and in fact I was originally planning on making my own, but given that there are different factors involved in identifying an item, such as its rarity (I’d make it easier to recognise common and legendary items, than rare and very rare for example), whether it has a command word, whether it requires attunement etc. etc., overall I think this scenario is always going to need a DM’s interpretation rather than a table to consult.

One thing I would do is confer disadvantage on the roll to those who don’t have Arcana as a proficiency, according to my principle that Arcana should be considered ‘a technical proficiency‘.

Using this mechanic, I would describe the process of discovering a magic item, with no recourse to detect magic or identify, in these stages.

1. PCs discover an item.
2. DM describes item
3. Any PC in the party may examine item and make an Arcana check (with disadvantage if they are not proficient in Arcana).
4. DM reveals knowledge about item in proportion of success of check.
5. In the case that the full properties of the item are not revealed, the DM rules if further examination and experimentation (backed up with further Arcana checks) can reveal more info, or if the PCs must wait until they can cast identify or find a NPC to do so for them, in order to make full use of the item.

What do you guys think? How are you handling this in your game at the moment?

A Rogue’s Guide to Playing a Swashbuckler

If I tell you one of my favourite books of all time is The Three Musketeers, you won’t be too surprised to hear that I have been eagerly awaiting a chance to play the rogue archetype, the swashbuckler, ever since a copy of The Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything landed on my lap this Christmas (thanks Santa).

Swashbucklers of film and legend include not only D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis (the latter being my favourite), but also The Scarlet Pimpernel, Robin Hood, Zorro, and any number of pirates, such as the scurrilous Captain Jack Sparrow. They are typically brave and romantic fighters who favour finesse over brute force, and they can cut nearly as deep with their rapier-sharp wit as their actual rapiers.

Stylish, dashing and extravagant if you’re not considering the roleplaying opportunities that the swashbuckler archetype is going to afford you, then you’re missing half the fun. Having said that, the mechanics our friends at WoTC have rustled up also make it one of the most powerful archetypes in the game… especially if you know what you’re doing.

Such dashing fellows…

Let’s take a look at the mechanics then… they revolve around the two abilities you get at 3rd level, Fancy Footwork and Rakish Audacity.

Fancy Footwork
When you choose this archetype at 3rd level, you learn how to land a strike and then slip away without reprisal. During your turn, if you make a melee attack against a creature, that creature can’t make opportunity attacks against you for the rest of your turn.

Rakish Audacity
Starting at 3rd level, your confidence propels you into battle. You can give yourself a bonus to your initiative rolls equal to your Charisma modifier. You also gain an additional way to use your Sneak Attack; you don’t need advantage on the attack roll to use your Sneak Attack against a creature if you are within 5 feet of it, no other creatures are within 5 feet of you, and you don’t have disadvantage on the attack roll. All the other rules for the Sneak Attack class feature still apply to you.

What does this mean? Basically put away your bow, because you kick ass at melee combat. Using these two features you can glide into battle, strike with two weapons, almost certainly deal your sneak attack damage (the only time you can’t is if you’re surrounded by enemies and/or miss with both attacks), and then glide out of danger. Possibly embellishing your movement with the odd cartwheel and backflip and taunting your hapless foes with some choice insults.

A bit more on your fighting tactics later, but now let’s see how I built my own swashbuckler: Drake Leopold Florentine Griffinheart III (…it’s always the third!).

Swashbuckler Build

Taking the standard starting block of 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8, I chose the human feat variant (p.31 Player’s Handbook) and placed my stats as follows:

Strength: 12
Dexterity: 16 (15+1)
Constitution: 14
Intelligence: 8
Wisdom: 10
Charisma: 14 (13+1)

Dexterity is obviously going to be your key stat. Fighting with finesse weapons, it’s going to dictate your attack and damage bonuses, give you crucial bonuses to your AC and initiate, and also improve your modifiers on vital skills such as Stealth and Acrobatics.

Charisma is your next most important stat. If you’re not beguiling, deceiving and impressing the NPCs you meet on your adventures you’re playing a swashbuckler all wrong. You are the archetypal charming rogue… a loveable rascal who lives by the seat of their pants, and will need every bit of their dashing magnetism to get themselves out of the scrapes they find themselves in (often through the fault of that same dashing magnetism).

Next I went for Constitution because, even with your Fancy Footwork, you’re going to take some hits as your armour class is going to suck big time. At first level your leather armour (nerfed to AC 11 in 5th edition) plus your Dex. modifier will give you a suicidal AC of 14, and it’s not going to get much better. Studded leather will get you to AC 15, after that you have to wait til 4th level to boost your Dex. and get up to a still downright dangerous AC 16. So some extra hit points will be necessary if you’re going to live long enough to become a legend.

After that your other stats don’t matter too much. I normally use Strength as a dump stat for rogues but I wanted Drake to be at least a little bit macho so I stuck my 12 there. Wisdom is always useful for Perception checks and saving throws, so I prefer not to have a minus at least, hence the 10, and Intelligence is not going to be of much use at all… so 8 it is! (In fact Drake is a very smart and sharp-witted guy, however with a low concentration span and a complete disinterest in academia it makes sense that he sucks at the likes of Religion and Arcana. And by the way, just because a PC has a low Intelligence score doesn’t mean you have to roleplay them as a complete idiot).

Now for Skills…

As a Rogue you get four skills to choose from, your background gives you two more and because I chose the Human feat variant I get another one… that’s seven to choose from in total!

Persuasion and Deception are vital for anyone who wants to ham up the style and swagger of this archetype, Acrobatics and Athletics are key for performing the kind of chandelier-swinging stunts that you’ve seen on TV, Stealth is very handy if you want to perform some of the traditional activities of the classic D&D rogue (something I enjoy a lot), Perception is the most rolled skill check in the game, and finally I plucked Performance as I decided that Drake was not only a blade, philosopher and lover… but a poet and storyteller as well. The principle topics of his poems and stories being himself and his legendary heroic deeds (some real, many imagined).

If I could have had one more I’d go for Animal Handling, especially as Drake’s backstory places him as a descendent of the founder of Waterdeep’s Griffin Cavalry, plus The Three Musketeers certainly knew how to ride a horse… but in practice I wasn’t sure it would be much use.

I put my roguish expertise on Acrobatics and Persuasion.

The Perfect Feat for Flavour

For each of my last three characters (Jaxx Storm a Cleric of the Tempest, Estelle a Paladin of Devotion and now Drake) I have chosen to play a human using the feat variant as I freakin’ love feats. They offer a fantastic combination of fun, flavour and power.

The one I chose for Drake is in fact not the most powerful of feats, but for me it rounds off the perfect set of skills a swashbuckler needs. I chose the Martial Adept feat, which enables me to choose two manoeuvres of the fighter’s Battle Master archetype and gives me a single 1d6 superiority dice that I can use once between rests. (See if you can persuade your DM to give you two d4s instead! Having only one is so frustrating!). The manoeuvres I chose are Riposte and Disarming Attack. You can read about them on p.74 of the Player’s Handbook.

Riposte is pretty sick… when a creature misses you with a melee attack you can use your reaction to punish their mistake with a blow of your own. And not only do you get your weapon damage, plus superiority dice damage, but most times you’ll get your Sneak Attack damage dice as well thanks to your Rakish Audacity class feature.

Riposte is so cool I keep forgetting to use Disarming Attack (well, with only one superiority dice to burn, opportunities are rare), but I’m confident it will come in handy, especially if the DM offers some benefits for doing so, like advantage striking an unarmed foe, or an opportunity attack if the target has to bend down and pick up their weapon. Even if the DM refuses to acknowledge your swashbuckling swagger with any tangible benefits you could use it to disarm an enemy of a magic weapon or item and pick it up yourself, or use a free action to kick their weapon across the floor. In the latter case you (and possibly your buddies) would get an opportunity attack when they have to move out of your reach to pick it up.

Equipment

The rapier is of course the iconic weapon of the swashbuckler, which Drake pairs with a dagger to fight with two weapons. I’ve just realised in the course of researching this article that this is against the rules as written as the rapier doesn’t have the light quality necessary for fighting with two weapons, despite weighing only 2 lbs!!! This doesn’t make much sense, and I can only imagine it was not given this quality to prevent rules-abusing players from fighting with two rapiers, but given that you can fight with two scimitars (3 lbs each!) or two shortswords (2 lbs each), then in terms of realism there’s no reason for your DM to disallow a rapier and dagger dual-wield – especially as it is a historically accurate combination. In terms of damage the combo works out as exactly the same as the rules-legit two shortswords or two scimitars (1d8 +1d4, vs. 1d6 + 1d6), so in terms of game balance there’s no reason for your DM to disallow it either. Shame there’s nothing in the RAW to clear this up – especially as in the Sword Coast Adventurers Guide they have a box out encouraging swashbucklers to fight with two weapons – but I’m sure common sense will prevail on your table.

(Another option / solution would be to take the Dual Wielder feat, instead of Martial Adept, meaning you could fight with two rapiers and also get a +1 to your AC… however I am personally opposed to the aesthetic of fighting with two rapiers.).

After that you’ll want some studded leather (you start with basic leather but it shouldn’t take you long to upgrade), your thieves’ toolkit (from your roguish past) and a fair few daggers tend to come in handy. I also armed Drake with a sling and a blowgun (with a vial of poison) for those moments when there’s no chance to engage in melee. If you want to be that annoying rogue that pussies around at the back, sneak attacking with a short bow though you’re in the wrong archetype.

Being a resolute dandy, Drake also carries a vial of perfume and a spare change of the clothes, cut in the latest fashions of Waterdeep.

Tactics

Playing a swashbuckler involves swooping into attack and then getting out of trouble using your Fancy Footwork. This is particularly easy when the party is facing one large monster. You move in, attack twice, and then step back half your movement to avoid the repercussions… the tank(s) in your party can take the hits. Next round half your movement in, attack, and half out again. Against numerous foes things are trickier, but you should be able to pick off bad guys engaged with your buddies or else attack isolated targets, meaning you continually get your Sneak Attack damage. If you do find yourself outnumbered you can use disengage and then move across the battlefield to attack a different creature you can use Sneak Attack against. You are constantly moving basically, slipping out of danger and cropping up where you can deal the most damage – and usually having a lot of fun in the process.

Backstory

Given that the swashbuckler is a rogue archetype, no matter how heroic you intend your PC to be, I think it’s worth giving your swashbuckler a story that explains why they are so adept at slinking into the shadows, picking locks and conning wealthy widow(er)s into signing off their heirlooms and estates into your possession.

For Drake I decided that, after his father’s death, his scheming uncle convinced the rest of the family that he was in fact conceived before wedlock and therefore a bastard, not fit to inherit the name of Griffinheart, much less their grand country estate. Aged just 7-years-old, he and his mother were forced to relocate to Waterdeep, where Drake became something of a street urchin, growing up with the wrong crowd and getting mixed up with one of the local thieves’ guild for a short while. This explains his unique mix of both noble and criminal traits (as well as giving the DM plenty to work with in terms of material for future adventures).

Have a think about your PC’s backstory, and be sure to use the prompts in the backgrounds section of the Player’s Handbook. A good character is born of their backstory and you’ll start to get ideas and inspiration about how you want to play your PC when you start to answer questions about their family history, upbringing and education, and influential figures and events in their life up until now.

Heroic Nickname

Drake dresses all in black, with the odd flash of pink, and goes by the name of The Black Maverick. In his cups, he is wont to reel off any number of self-styled titles such as The Duke of Debonair, The Marquise of Mayhem, The Count of Class and the Prince of Panache.

Flair

A swashbuckler doesn’t defeat his enemies in the most efficient way possible… where would be the fun in that? He defeats them in the most stylish way possible, even if that means courting extra danger.

– Cool Manoeuvres

Try and come up with some cool manoeuvres for your swashbuckler to try out on the battlefield, like throwing their cloak over an opponent’s eyes, attempting to undo someone’s breeches instead of hurting them, slapping their backside with the flat of your blade before Fancy Footwork-ing to safety. Sometimes you’re creativity will gain you an advantage on the battlefield, other times it might earn you inspiration from your DM, but at all times it should lend your game a lot of fun additional flavour.

– Signature Insults

Landing a good insult can be more satisfying than landing a good blow… maybe pre-generate a few that you can use in your next session. A couple I came up with (but I keep forgetting to use!) are:

I’ve felt a kitten lick me harder than that (for when an opponent scores a particularly low hit point blow).

Your swordplay is shabby, but my God your breath could knock out all five heads of a hydra at a hundred yards

My moustache has had more pussy than you… and I only grew it last month

Archaic insults could also prove to be a fun source of merriment at the table. Bandying around scorchers like fustylugs, lobcock, unlicked cub, beard splitter and scobberlotcher is likely to be memorable at the very least!

A Touch of Poetry

I’ve wanted to play a poet for a while now but it didn’t fit any of my previous characters… but it’s perfect for the swashbuckler. To make things easy on myself I’ve take the classic limerick format and use that to spin amusing ditties, such as:

There once was a rogue named Drake
Who yearned for an ale and a steak
He was short on coins
But long in the loins
So a deal with the landlady he did make

There once was a courtesan named Diva
People said she had a very hairy beaver
To see it myself
I had to pay half my wealth
But, damm it, now I’m a believer

As the adventurer has worn on though I’ve started writing poems to describe the real deeds of the whole party (not the imagined deeds of Drake), and it’s become a fun informal reminder of what happened in last week’s session. The DM even writes them down for us next to his own session summary!

Examples:

There once was a druid called Mingan
There were vines only he could swing on
The others and Drake
Each got bit by a snake
Because they didn’t know how to cling on

There once was a bard with powers like Moses
– at least in very small doses
He parted the lake
For the heroes and Drake
We didn’t get wet… not even our toesies!

There once was a bard called Elandril
He wanted the scroll: Power Word Kill
But because he’s so greedy
We gave it to the needy
Now Tallulah can murder at will

And my personal favourite…

There once was a paladin called Tallulah
I really wanted to do her
I pretended to be a goner
So she’d lay her hands on my boner
Turns out it was easy to fool her!

Anyway I include this in case it inspires any poetic or storytelling leanings for your own PC.

A Flaw

Apart from being an egotistically prick, I decided to give Drake a pretty serious flaw. He’s scared of undead (which of course he doesn’t admit). I’m not sure the party have really noticed yet that he suddenly decides to switch to his sling whenever the dead come calling, and at one stage using some poor wenches as body shields… and whilst it can seem like you’re making an unnecessary rod for your back when you give your PC a flaw that the rules don’t call for, I think a character comes to life when you give them some weaknesses and can provide you with many more roleplaying opportunities than the all-conquering style of hero. Check out my phobias table for some inspiration on that front (although weaknesses needn’t be limited to phobias!).

Mike Mearls Speaks…

And to finish let’s see what Mike Mearls has to say about swashbucklers in 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons.

Have you played this archetype yourself? Please share your experiences and tips in the comments!

And, if you liked this, check out my guide on playing a rogue assassin, where I demonstrate some canny optimisation choices as well as introduce you to my beloved badass bitch Xenia ‘Nightsting’ Zanetti of the White Scorpions Guild. (Well technically ‘formerly badass bitch’ as she recently got reduced to a pile of dust by an undead Beholder… but who knows if powerful magic might one day raise her from the ashes).

Review: Dungeon Tales volume 1

I received an exciting email from a gentleman by the name of Travis Legge a few weeks ago. He was collaborating on new project with prodigious DMs Guild publisher M.T. Black called Dungeon Tales, the remit of which is to bring together some of the Guild’s finer, but lesser-known, adventures into one affordable volume. My own Gleaming Cloud Citadel had been selected for inclusion!

Naturally I was delighted. Aside from collecting a few extra coins in royalties, it means my adventure will be seen – and hopefully played – by many more worldwide gamers.

A major side bonus of being involved in the release was I received a complimentary copy of the anthology, ie. eight (not including my own) awesome adventures compiled by some seriously creative fantasy writers.

You can find, and read more about, Dungeon Tales volume 1 on the DMs Guild, but because I wanted to make it easier for people to understand what they’re (potentially) buying I’ve created this handy contents table / menu for you, which displays the adventures in order of levels, and has some handy additional data, like number of expected sessions to play, and individual price and rating. The individual price is worth knowing because, as you’ll see, bought individually the adventures would set you back close to 30 dollars, whereas the anthology is very reasonably priced at $9.95, saving you close to 20 of America’s finest.

>> DUNGEON TALES CONTENTS TABLE <<

Review of Dungeon Tales

Nine stellar 5th edition adventures in one volume

Dungeons Tales Review

Reviewing the anthology in general, I was first of all impressed with the level of presentation, writing and editing of all the adventures. Of course with different authors using different formatting programmes, layout techniques and artists, there is no overarching consistency to the anthology, but all of the volumes within model themselves on official Dungeons & Dragons products and offer a professional front. If you’ve had mixed experiences buying from the Guilds and you’re worried that you’re buying into some slip-shod two-bit products, I can assure you you’re not! One or two are actually better presented than the average WoTC product in terms of attractiveness and ease of use.

Thematically and there’s a very strong Fey presence indeed to Dungeon Tales, with Midnight Revelry, Ring Out, Wild Bells and The Sylvan Harp all containing Fey foes… whilst the Labyrinth of Thorns, also has a dreamy, fairytale feel to it.

Of the other inclusions, two are classic D&D adventures, with The Temple of the Opal Goddess inviting adventurers to steal into an orc stronghold to deal with a demonic presence, and my own The Gleaming Cloud Citadel challenging PCs to take on a classic wizard’s tower full of traps and guardians, with some politicking and intrigue thrown into the mix.

The three remaining volumes struck me as particularly original in terms of concept: Forget Me Not, where the party encounters a magically displaced band of gnolls and uncovers a plot of fiendish betrayal. Modrons, Mephits & Mayhem in which the party journeys to an abandoned modron research facility, only to find its elemental guardians still active and other hostile parties sniffing around, and Seized Fire for the Ceasefire, in which the PCs find themselves in an icy setting, where a wizard’s tower holds an enchanted staff and a village of whale-folk need saving from a pair of remorhazes.

I haven’t had time to read every word of each of these, so let me concentrate on reviewing those I’ve had the opportunity to look at in more depth.

Sylvan Harp

By Simon Collins
This is a well-constructed adventure, in which the PCs are asked to intervene in the case of missing magic harp and prove that a human village have nothing to do with its theft – before continuing to thwart the plans of a rather nasty Thorn Hag. It plays out like a mini-sandbox, and the PCs are given free rein to explore the region, but at the same time there is a clear timeline of events that rewards the party for acting swiftly and good investigation and decision making. It also makes excellent use of Volo’s Guide to Monsters, so if you bought that, but have not really had a chance to employ many of its beasties, look no further…

I am a big fan of Mr. Collin’s works and you can read more reviews of his adventures elsewhere on this very website.

Ring Out, Wild Bells

By Emmet Byrne
A malevolent spirit called Mr. Grin torments a local village in this adventure that has more than a touch fairytale about it, and would also be perfect as a Halloween one shot. What I like about this story is that the victims are not the innocent villagers they seem, leaving the PCs with something of a moral dilemma – at least if they bother to investigate the back story (for that reason I’d recommend this adventure for more inquisitive groups, as trigger happy parties will just wade through the combats without uncovering the story’s main charm. In addition to great story telling, awesome presentation and maps give a really high quality feel to Ring Out, Wild Bells.

By the way Emmet has also produced some massively popular character sheets, one specifically tailored for each class. I would highly recommend you check them out (I already started using them)! They are free to download, although I’m sure he’d appreciate a few coppers for his efforts.

Labyrinth of Thorns

By Ashley Warren
If I wanted to describe Labyrinth of Thorns in a phrase it would be “a St. Valentine’s one shot”. The adventure is in fact very simple in structure: the PCs must enter a mystical maze in order to retrieve the lost bride of a world-renowned baker, encountering a variety of obstacles en route (a mix of puzzles, riddles and combats). What makes it special is the atmosphere, details and deft touches the author has woven into the story that seems to have been heavily influenced by both the romance of Italy, with a slice of Pan’s Labyrinth as well. These two qualities – simplicity and atmosphere – make it a perfect one shot adventure to run, especially if it does happen to be February the 14th.

Modrons, Mephits & Mayhem

By Tim Bannock
I absolutely love the concept of this adventure in which several groups, including the PCs, converge on an abandoned and sinister modron research facility (it was once used to experiment on innocent flumphs) to try to tap into the arcane power that resides there. There’s plenty of backstory and flavour and the adventure plays out like a very intelligent dungeon crawl, in which the PCs are actually able to recalibrate parts of the dungeon using the various control stations that crop up. If this was a Hollywood film it would be pitched to producers as a “high concept” movie, and whilst I think it would trickier than average to run, it’s one I’m definitely considering fitting into my campaign, or at the very least plundering for ideas.

Overall I’ve been very impressed with the contents of this volume, and it provides great value for DMs, whilst also saving them a lot of time trying to source worthwhile material from the Guild. That’s perhaps the major draw of this product, in that it’s made up of adventures carefully selected by the hands of two experienced creators, giving buyers some much appreciated quality assurance.

8 Lessons I’ve Learned from Watching Matt Mercer DM

Unless you’ve just swung into the multiverse swaddled in a stork’s napkin, you’ve no doubt heard of Matthew Mercer. He’s probably the world’s most famous Dungeon Master thanks to the popular Youtube gaming series Critical Role – although I personally discovered him taking charge of Wizards of the Coast’s own web series ‘Force Grey‘.

I never would have thought in a million years that watching other people play D&D could be entertaining, but I absolutely loved tuning into the first seasons of this series, where the PCs were played by some very amusing characters, particularly Utkarsh Ambudkar, Chris Hardwick and Jonah Ray. As the series has gone on both Chris and Jonah left, and with them went some of the charm of the early episodes, but nonetheless I found myself just as keen to switch on. That’s when I realised the draw for me was not watching the players’ smash foes and trade banter (amusing though it is), it was rather tuning in to watch Matt Mercer arbitrate the game.

Why? Because watching Matthew Mercer Dungeon Master is like watching Lionel Messi play football. You’re left captivated and fascinated by someone operating at the top of their game.

Watching Matthew Mercer Dungeon Master is like watching Lionel Messi play football. You’re left captivated and fascinated by someone operating at the top of their game.

And whilst, like watching Messi, I simply have to accept that I’m never going to be in the same league in terms of my own performances (be it on the soccer field or at the table), I am at least able to pick up some really cool tips on how I can improve my own Dungeon Master skills.

matt mercer dm tips

Force Grey hunt for the Lost City of Omu

After recently binge-viewing the whole Lost City of Omu series, here are some things I’ve learned from watching Matt Mercer DMing that I wanted to share with you…

1. More detail brings the game alive

Matthew has a talent for both imagining and describing the world his players inhabit, and not only every backdrop is depicted in detail, but every monster, spell and every swing of the sword is rendered in technicolour, so that you almost feel like you’re watching a movie as the action unfolds.

Before I watched Matt DM I played the game in a very much mechanical bare bones style. If a player told me, “I cast magic missile on the orc,” I would no doubt reply. “Ok roll 3d4+3 damage.” “10 hp of damage. Is he dead?” “Nope he’s still alive.”

Matt however would say something along the lines of: “Three fizzing white bolts of arcane energy shoot from your fingertips and speed towards the hapless orc with the accuracy of heat seeking missiles. Boof, boof, boof, they explode one by one on his chest, as he staggers back from the pain. Gritting his sharp animal-like teeth, he shouts a war cry in his native tongue and charges towards you.”

I don’t think I really have to tell you which is better do I?

Needless to say I’m trying to up my game in this respect, the challenge being dealing with the chaos of combat and the dozens of things you need to keep track of, whilst still finding the mental agility to dish out the power descriptions… but improvements have been made.

2. Don’t say no, say “you can try”

I confess, I’m always been a very restrictive Dungeon Master. I love realism and additionally I like players to earn kick ass hero status, not expect themselves to be able to pull off death defying stunts from the get go. This means, historically, I’ve often simple ruled out the more outlandish manoeuvres that PCs have thrown at me. This is of course is frustrating for players, and takes some of the fun away from them.

There are two things I’ve noticed Matt does when one of his players comes up with a particularly unfeasible plan, and I’ve started doing the same. The first is to make sure the PCs understand the logistics of what they’re trying to attempt. As D&D happens in our heads it’s natural that what one person imagines is not exactly how another person see things… in fact I’m pretty sure they’re often wildly wildly different! Simply going through the scenario again in more detail is often enough for a player to drop a plan that wouldn’t work… once they understand that the river is swollen with winter rains and that Michael Phelps himself wouldn’t last long swimming in plate mail, then they might not be so keen to drown themselves.

The second response to a crazy ass idea that Matt often gives is to simply say ‘you can try!’ I really like this method a lot as it gives players full creative control over their characters and a chance of success… how big or small that chance is, is up to you to decide! And if / when they fail it often leads to something epic or memorable happening. That’s better than ruling out their creativity and having them resignedly make a boring melee attack from having nothing better to do.

I’ve come to realise that many of the best moments of the game come from when a DM lets a player do something stupid. It’s that moment in the movie when things go from bad to worse and the drama is at its highest point… often with some hilarity thrown in.

Even if it means throwing out a DC 25 or 30, let the PCs have a go at whatever they want and enjoy the carnage that follows…

3. Use the dice rolls to inspire the description

This is a related to my first point, but what I really love about Matt’s style of DMing is how, what in black and white mechanical terms are successes or failures, turn into nuanced reality in his masterful hands. If someone fails an attack roll by one point, this is Matt’s cue to describe how their arrow flies true, but teasingly deflects off the hobgoblin’s helmet without dealing damage. A PC passing a saving throw against fireball prompts Matt to describe how their character combat-rolls behind a nearby boulder to avoid the worst of the blast. The drama of an on-the-money Athletics check, and Matt describes how the character plants both their feet – just – on the other side of the chasm, before frantically wheeling their arms to avoid slipping backwards into a boiling pit of lava.

In other words he continually takes the binary mechanics of success and failure, and turns them into a story, and that’s awesome.

4. Let PCs describe the kill

Generally Matt takes the lead in describing the action… that makes sense. As the Dungeon Master he is the arbitrator of the world. A player can attempt anything, but what actually happens is up to the DM to interpret. However when a PC reduces a monster to zero hit points the DM can afford to give the player in question carte blanche to describe their actions as the outcome is decided, and how it happens is more a point of style.

When this happens at Matt’s table he typically turns to the PC with a sly grin and says (thus revealing that they’ve just killed the baddie!), “So how do you want to do this?”

This is the PCs cue to give vent to their (violent) fantasies and let them imagine exactly how their character delivers the death blow, often embellishing the strike with stylish flourishes such as “then I spit on his corpse,” or “then I wipe the blood off my blade and say ‘and stay down bitch'”. Every player likes to bathe in the power of their PCs and handing them the reins for a moment (specifically a moment where the result is already decided) allows them, not only to revel in being a badass, but also to join in the creativity and become a joint story teller along with the DM.

In fact, it would be worth considering where else in the game, as a DM, you can do this… players love it and the game becomes a real team effort of imagination.

By the way there’s a great example of this in action in this episode of Force Grey as the druid in the party finishes off an undead T-rex in the jungles of Chult when the swarm of porcupines he summons unleash a volley of quills at the zombie lizard.

5. You don’t have to be a slave to the rules

Players often consciously or subconsciously interpret their skills to be a lot more powerful than the rules actually state, and I do think it’s important to keep them in check on these occasions… otherwise you’re going to make a rod for your back as players then expect to be able to exceed their powers on a regular basis, and you’re potentially going to get in all kinds of awkward situations down the line.

However, as Matt Mercer demonstrates in this episode of The Lost City of Omu it’s totally ok to allow a player to step outstep the rules in a key moment.

In the example I just shared the barbarian of the party has just lost her right hand… that’s not going to be much fun for her from now on in! Given that she fights with a two handed weapon, she’s going to be something of a lame duck for the rest of the adventure. The party are desperate to help out, and the paladin, having already been told that the lesser restoration spell won’t work, describes in detail how he takes his friend’s severed hand and places it next to the bloody wrist, and utters a desperate prayer to his God.

Now, rules as written, there’s no way his ability lay on hands is supposed to be able to reattach limbs, but instead of saying ‘sorry dude, but that’s beyond your powers’ Matt tells the paladin to make a religion check. It’s clearly a crucial moment and with some bardic inspiration and guidance he ends up rolling a 27. This is Matt’s cue to describe the paladin reaching beyond the planes of existence to the Nine Hells and coming face to face with his terrifying deity, Tiamat, whose five heads nod their assent to this boon. It’s not quite as simple as that though… a burst of white radiant light flairs up on the barbarian’s wrist, doing 10 hp of damage, and her hand feels numb and not quite its old self.

By letting one of the player’s bend the rules of the game Matt allows them to create an epic moment – which he does more than justice to in his description of how it unfolds – and something truly memorable in the game. The fact that is happened outside the ordinary rules of the game made it even more epic. And the fact that this clearly required a very high roll, and carried some negative consequences, prevented it from ever feeling like the DM was throwing the PCs a bone here. It felt like they earned it.

The moral of the story is that if you do want to step outside the RAW for a moment, Chris Perkins and Jeremy Crawford aren’t going to turn up at your house, confiscate your Player’s Handbook and ban you from every playing D&D again.

In fact, it’s explicitly written in every edition of D&D that I’ve ever played (namely 1st, 2nd and 5th) that the rules are meant to be broken and reinterpreted. (None of which unfortunately has ever stopped a certain type of rules lawyer throwing a fit on a forum whenever someone suggests a different way of doing something. But that’s another post…)

6. Dial up the drama

One thing I’ve seen Matt do on a number of occasions is allow a bad situation to get worse. As I mentioned earlier, letting PCs attempt dumb stuff means this can happen naturally without any help from you as the DM. However even if the players are making tight decisions and operating as a slick well drilled machine – or maybe especially if they are – it’s good to be open to the idea of things getting worse. One moment stood out for me in a recent episode of Force Grey I watched. As the party tried to abseil down a cliff, they were attacked by gargoyles half way down. That sounds bad enough, but then, after someone cast fireball, Matt seized the opportunity to casually mention the fact that the rope had now caught fire. Now the game is getting interesting!

7. Buy into your players’ vision for their characters

As a DM you’re effectively there to facilitate the fantasies of your players, and not the other way round. I struggle with this to be honest. I have a quite narrow vision of fantasy – I like it gritty and I find aspects of high fantasy to be too silly to be enjoyable. But… I think a good DM has to remain as open minded as possible. When the druid in the party summons a troop of beavers and has them talk like Chicago gangsters maybe you just have to roll with it… and enjoy it!

8. Don’t give the game away

Another thing I like about Matt’s style of DMing, is that he doesn’t really engage with the players out of game – or at least keeps it at a minimal. Once he has described the scene he tends to steps back and let the players decide what to do, without prompting. Sometimes when I DM, I get drawn into the ‘you’re getting warmer… colder… warmer’ game, subtly responding to the players’ desire for direction, by offering them facial expressions, verbal clues, body language or thinly veiled instructions that lead them along the right path.

But for the game to offer real autonomy to the players I think whenever the PCs are faced with a dilemma or big decision you have to put your poker face on and let them head off in the wrong direction occasionally or make a massive mistake.

As a player I naturally try to read between the lines of what info the DM gives us, but I always appreciate it more when they give nothing away and we’re forced to decide for ourselves, for better or worse.


Unfortunately for me, a bit like the fact that Messi is fucking fast and can control the ball as if he had superglue on the surface of his boots, there are other things that Matt can do that can’t be learned from viewing alone, or at least not so easily.

As a professional actor he’s got a range of voices and facial expressions that I’m never gonna have, and to be honest I’m not really confident about hamming it up to the max., so I’ll never be able to keep up with the more theatrical DMs who can go the extra mile here and bring some awesome immersion to the game.

Whatever your personality / talent limitations are, however, that’s no excuse or reason to not do what you can to improve your DMing skills. After all, improving at something you love doing is going to give you a lot of satisfaction, and in this particular instance deliver a lot of extra joy to the players at your table.

So my goal when I’m watching an expert DM like Matt do his thing is never to completely emulate them, but to pick up as many easy-to-implement tips as I can, and bring them to my game.

Anyway enough from me… what have you learned from watching Mr. Mercer preside over the table? Or who else have you learned from, be they a celebrity DM we can watch on Youtube or a friend of yours who is a master of the art?

Please share any stories, anecdotes and links in the comments… would love to hear from you on this!

I’ll leave you with the very first episode of Force Grey…

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 affects 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!

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