Hipsters & Dragons

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

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 its 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!

Always Roll Insight Behind Your Screen

When your character attempts to stick their spear in a yeti (Attack Roll), track a unicorn in a forest (Survival check) or swing across a pit of molten lava on a fraying rope (Athletics / Acrobatics check) they generally know if they have succeeded or failed. However there are some scenarios, particularly those involving the skill Insight (p.178 of the Player’s Handbook), where the character has no way of knowing if they have succeeded or not. A character who has failed to swing across a pit of molten lava knows by the mild burning sensation on their skin that they have fallen short, but a character who has failed an Insight test could easily come away thinking they have succeeded… “undoubtedly this pale man with sharp carnivores and no shadow can be trusted wholeheartedly,” they might conclude, having been hoodwinked by the vampire’s charm. However if the 1 they rolled is staring them in the face, then it’s impossible for the player roleplaying the character not to realise that in fact the NPC is completely untrustworthy and that their PC is (temporarily at least) a gullible fool.

I’m bluffing with my muffin… (painting by Coolidge).

That’s why, for me, Insight checks should always be rolled by the Dungeon Master, not the player, behind the screen. After all a PC’s intuition might tell them that an NPC is completely trustworthy, or a pathological liar, but the PC’s intuition might be completely wrong. In gaming terms it’s important that they don’t know when to trust their character’s intuition or not… otherwise every insight roll reveals the truth every time. If the character rolls well, then they can be pretty certain to trust whether the NPC is lying or not. The character rolls badly, then the player knows not to trust his own character’s judgement. The more PCs rolling visibly on the table, the more certain the party can be of guessing what’s going on.

One of the highlights of any Dungeons & Dragons’ session should be the NPC interactions, and the party making decisions about who to trust and who to keep on the suspect list. Whilst an Insight check can set up a fun contest between two parties (one rolling Deception, the other Insight) it also removes the suspense from a tight situation the moment a PC tosses a high dice onto the table – which is why some DMs don’t allow Insight checks at all, rather the players behind the PCs must use make a call themselves based on the interaction. However there’s no need to go that far. Simply by putting the Insight check behind the screen, where it belongs, the tension returns to the game. Sure, three of the party might trust Count Bitealot, but two don’t – so what is their course of the action?

Try it and see the difference!

If you liked this, and enjoy challenging your players try my new healing rules. No more powering up back to full HP after a sixty minute sit down.

How Can I Start Playing Dungeons & Dragons?

One of the mission statements of this blog is to blow away some of the fog of mystery that surrounds this enigmatic game we call Dungeons & Dragons, and help people access this amazing past time. Aside from allaying fears about whether it’s satanic or not, or do you have to be some kind of uber-geek to play it (I’ll actually be addressing both those points in forthcoming posts, but spoiler alert: it’s no and no!), I think by far the best thing I can do is offer some practical advice on how to get started.

And that advice would be: to learn how to play Dungeons & Dragons simply join an existing D&D group.

By doing so you’ll very quickly grasp the concept of the game (which is notoriously hard to explain, but makes sense as soon as you start playing!), and slowly pick up the rules as you go along.

Generally speaking to play Dungeons & Dragons you need 4 or 5 people. One of those will be the Dungeon Master, the person who directs the game; the others will all be players who take part in the game. To be the Dungeon Master you need quite a lot of experience of the game and firm mastery of the rules… you on the other hand simply want to join the game as a new player. And to do so you need nothing more than an invitation from the Dungeon Master and his or her group of friends. You don’t need any knowledge of the game at all, or it’s rules, nor do you need any equipment. They will have all the materials needed for the game, such as the rulebooks and dice. (Although if you have a pencil, eraser and paper that’s great… and if you want to bring some food and drinks you’ll make yourself popular!).

Whilst the modern world has opened up the possibility of playing Dungeons & Dragons online I would strongly recommend trying to find a game where you can meet in person to begin with. You’re going to need people to take you by the hand a little bit, to help you create your character (ie. the hero you will play) and to advise you on the possibilities of your character (ie. what actions they can take in the game, what special skills they have etc) once the game starts. All of which is a little easier face to face than with a webcab delay.

Racking my brain I can see three possible ways a new player could find an existing group to join… so here they are.

Option 1: Ask a Friend Who Plays

The best opportunity to enter the world of D&D would be if you are friends with, or at least acquaintances with, someone who already plays. In that case don’t be shy and just tell this person you’re also keen to play and ask them if they have any room for you in their next gaming session. There’s a very high probability they’ll be delighted to have you along. Although if for some reason they’re not don’t take it personally, it’s likely that they just have too many players already (the game doesn’t function so well once there are more than 5 or so players at the table). Ask them to keep you in mind if a space opens up in future.

Option 2: Join A Session at a Gaming Store

If you don’t have any friends that already play, you could try contacting your local gaming store. Wizards of the Coast, the company that own the Dungeons & Dragons brand and publish the official rules, which are now in their 5th edition, have a store locator on this page. It basically searches for shops that stock their products, and these stores often run D&D sessions at the actual store… you just need to contact them and find out when. I just tried and their store locator understands UK postcodes as well as US zip codes and there are several shops around London for example.

Option 3: Network Online to Find a Game in Real Life!

Your third option is to find a friendly group of strangers! And what was the Internet invented for if not that? Try posting in this massive Facebook group. Even better try searching on Meetup – in fact I’ve done it for you, you lazy so and so. There are currently over 800 meet up groups tagged with Dungeons and Dragons all around the globe! There are even more on roleplaying games in general (whilst D&D is the most famous roleplaying game, it’s certainly not the only one!). So there’s a high chance there’s a game you could join near you. Otherwise there’s scores of other social networks you could scour for a local gaming group.

And finally…

Option 4: Play Online

As I said, I don’t think this is the easiest option if you’ve never played, but as long as you can find a patient DM and group of players there’s absolutely no reason you couldn’t join in an online game. To do so register on Roll20 and search for a game that’s looking for players!

I really hope that helps and is the final kick up the backside you needed to get started! If you’re still trying to puzzle out what the hell is Dungeons & Dragons click on my attempt at explaining. Honestly though, it’s way easier just to turn up to a game and find out how it works!

One final tip, a great character to begin with is a barbarian or fighter as they are simple to play. Your main goal will be to charge at the monsters and hit them really hard with your sword, and whatever happens you tend to be in the thick of the action! (Some other characters, like rogues, wizards and priests, require a bit more fine knowledge of the rules to make the most of their abilities).

New Spells for Wizards (& Others)

I’ve spent a lot of time this year preparing one of my D&D adventures for publication, an adventure that hinges around the Order of the Gossamer Robes, a pioneering body of wizards whose mastery of magic has allowed them to formulate many and various powerful news spells. Naturally, having created this storyline, I was duty-bound to create at least some of the incantations that these arcane academics have committed to their seminal tome, The Discoveries.

I will be releasing the adventure soon on DMs Guild, along with the full version of The Discoveries, which currently contains 27 new spells. As a little teaser – and also to allow for playtesting and feedback before publication – I’d like to publish six of those incantations right now.

My goal in authoring them was to provide some new effects and possibilities that currently don’t exist (or at least I have missed!) in the 5th edition Player’s Handbook (or else provide the same effects but in different ways). And whilst nominally wizards’ spells, I’ll leave it up to you if you feel that they could be adopted by sorcerers, warlocks or certain priests.

Hopefully I’ve pitched them about right. They need to be as useful / powerful as existing spells (otherwise why bother create them!? No one would learn them…) and yet not not so powerful they unbalance the game.

Bridge

2nd level conjuration

Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 60 feet
Components: V, S
Duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes.

You create a shimmering bridge of energy 5 feet wide and 30 feet long, which arcs 5 feet above the ground at its highest point.
At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a 3rd level spell slot or higher the bridge you can create is an additional 5 feet wide, 10 feet long and arcing 5 feet higher for every extra spell slot expended. Additionally the duration of the spell increases by 10 minutes per spell slot used.

Author’s notes: I designed this so a low level wizard can solve problems in a dungeon, whilst a higher level one can help armies cross raging torrents…

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Chameleon

Illusion cantrip

Casting Time: 1 action
Range: Self
Components: V, S, M (a piece of chameleon skin)
Duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes.

You assume the colours and appearance of the nearest surface, blending into your environment, enabling you to become all but invisible when still. The spell has no effect on any creature that has already seen you (unless you break line of sight and then hide), and the spell’s effects cease to work whenever you move.

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Flash Bang

3rd level evocation

Casting Time: Bonus action
Range: 60ft
Components: V, S, M
Duration: Instantaneous

You trigger a blast of magical force, accompanied by a thunderclap and flash of bright white light, that affects any creature within a 30 foot radius of a point you choose within range. The blast does 2d10 force damage, or half as much on a successful Strength saving throw, and causes victims to be stunned for 1 turn (no effect on save).
At Higher Levels. The damage increases by 1d10 for each spell slot level expended above 3rd.

Author’s note: Nowhere near as dangerous as fireball, the stun effect coupled with the fact it only requires a bonus action to cast I think make this spell interesting. Might be best used by a multiclass character, such as a rogue, who could then use sneak attack on the victims

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Lavinia’s Stunning Escape

5th level evocation

Casting Time: 1 minute (activated with a reaction)
Range: Self
Components: V, S, M (a pair of cymbals)
Duration: 24 hours

You weave a protective aura around yourself (or a willing target you touch) that you are able to trigger using a reaction the moment you take damage from an attack. When triggered a stunning blast of magical force affects anyone within 30ft, doing 2d10 damage (half on a successful Strength saving throw) and causing them to be stunned for 1 turn (no effect on save). In addition you may turn invisible as per the conditions of the spell invisibility (requires concentration, ends if you attack a creature) and teleport up to 60ft to an unoccupied space that you can see. The spell must be triggered within 24 hours of casting, or be lost. Only one protective aura can be active per person at one time, and it can be triggered only once.

Author’s note: an extremely powerful defence mechanism, this is a good spell to reward a PC with… possibly found in a musty spellbook in the depths of some dungeon (or in the Gleaming Cloud Citadel, if you buy my adventure out soon!).

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Meredin’s Mighty Applause

4th level illusion

Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 120ft
Components: V, S, M (a flower in bloom)
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute

Any humanoid within 30ft radius of the targeted creature of this spell must succeed on a Charisma saving throw or be overwhelmed by a need to clap this target, dropping whatever is in their hands to do so. This enthusiastic applause takes up the entirety of their turn. They may repeat the saving throw at the end of their turn.
The spell ends for an affected creature if it takes any damage.
At Higher Levels. For every spell slot expended beyond 4th level, the radius effect of the spell increases by 10 feet.

Author’s note: I feel this one could be a lot of fun – and very effective – in the right situation.

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Heart Attack

7th level necromancy

Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 30 feet
Components: V, S, M (a chicken’s heart, crushed when casting the spell)
Duration: Instantaneous

You wrap a spectral hand around the heart of a giant-sized target or smaller within range and squeeze. The target must make a Constitution saving throw, and then roll a d12 and consult the following table. If they pass their saving throw they may add 3 to the roll.

D12 Spell Effect
1. Heart explodes causing instant death
2-4. Heart collapses reducing target to 0 hp
5-10. Heart attack. Target is paralysed for 1d4 rounds, taking 4d6 damage
each round.
11-12.+ Target suffers excruciating heart tremors doing 4d6 damage.

At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a 8th level spell slot or higher you can target one additional creature per spell slot expended.

Author’s Note: I like spells with a little table of effects! I found trying to pitch the danger of a 7th spell really hard, so let me know how you get on with this one… comments appreciated!

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