Hipsters & Dragons

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Category: Tips for DMs (Page 1 of 2)

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 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?

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…

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…

Which is Best: Fireball vs. Lightning Bolt

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

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

(Image sourced from here).

Evening Up The Score

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

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

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

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

Group Stealth & Other Ability Checks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Paladins’ Divine Smite Overpowered?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hipster Rules Fix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Phobias for PCs & NPCs (5e D&D)

“I ain’t getting in no boat fool!”

Ever wanted to give your PC a little extra flavour, such as BA’s infamous phobia of both boats and flying, or Indiana Jones’ fear of snakes? The mightiest heroes have weaknesses and flaws, that make them all the more credible – and even heroic, since they often have to overcome them – and will lift your PC above the ranks of that tedious infallible paladin you usually play.

Every great hero has a weakness…

For those who love the roleplaying challenge of 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, here is my table of common(ish) phobias that will ensure your character is no cookie-cutter hero but one whose Achilles’ heal can all too often place him and his fellow adventurers in grave danger.

DMs meanwhile, perhaps you want to use this when creating your NPCs? It’s going to be a hell of a lot harder to rescue that princess from the castle’s dungeons at night if she’s scared of the dark…

Hipsters & Dragons Table of Phobias (5e D&D)

Roll a d20

1. Fear of Darkness
2. Fear of Fire
3. Fear of Water (as in drowning in oceans, lakes, rivers, not as in drinking a glass of…)
4. Fear of Heights
5. Fear of Thunder and Lightning
6. Fear of Ghosts (and/or undead)
7. Fear of Death
8. Fear of Enclosed Spaces
9. Fear of Open Spaces
10. Fear of Spiders
11. Fear of Snakes (and/or lizards)
12. Fear of Insects (or biting / stinging ones at least)
13. Fear of Dogs or Wolves.
14. Fear of Cats
15. Fear of Rodents
16. Fear of Fish
17. Fear of Horses
18. Fear of Mirrors
19. Fear of Divine Magic (obviously reroll if you’re a Cleric, Paladin)
20. Fear of Sorcery (obviously reroll if you’re a Wizard, Sorcerer etc.)

How strong the phobia is, is probably best for you to decide. Strong enough to inconvenience you will make for good roleplaying opportunities. So strong that everyday adventuring situations become a massive and rapidly tedious pantomime is soon going to grate on your fellow PCs.

If you do want to randomise the extent of the phobia though I would suggest this table.

Roll a d10

1-7. Normal phobia. Oh God, get it away from me.
7-9. Extreme phobia. Please no, don’t make me *sobs*…
10. Crippling phobia. No fucking way Jose.

Is Banishment Overpowered? How To Deal with Banishment as a DM

Aside from Counterspell, which I dealt with in an earlier post, another problematic spell in 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons is Banishment. In fact like Counterspell it also makes DM David’s top four irritating invocations in the game. In his words:

Banishment lets players split combat scenes into two parts. In part one, the wizard or cleric banishes the toughest foes so their party can gang up on the outnumbered mooks in a one-sided romp. In the second part, the banished creatures spring back into reality and the party ambushes them. A potentially compelling fight turns into a rout followed by a dreary murder scene.

This is exactly what happened when I was Dungeon Mastering the other day and I came across the spell as a DM for the first time. The party’s camp was attacked at night by a band of orcs, led by an orc eye of gruumsh and a pet cyclops. The fight started interestingly enough with my cyclops scoring a critical hit on the party’s almost indestructible paladin, but the minute the party’s sorcerer cast Banishment on the cyclops the fight was over as a contest. Orcs were routinely mopped out of existence after which the cyclops rematerialised surrounded and outnumbered. The subsequent dice rolls were pregnant with the weight of their own pointlessness.

Up in a puff of smoke…

I was pondering how overpowered and frustrating the spell was after the session and so looked it up to see if somehow we weren’t missing something… and indeed we were. A closer look at the material components of the invocation (p. 217 PH), reveals that “an item distasteful to the target” is required to cast it. Now, I’m a pretty liberal DM when it comes to components. If the costs aren’t prohibitive I assume the caster in question keeps a reliable stock of whatever bits, bobs, nuts and guts they are likely to need during the course of an adventure. However this component requirement clearly demands some knowledge of the intended subject of the spell and varies completely depending on the target. And so I’ve informed my players that if they want to cast this spell in the future they are going to do some legwork on their opponent and then after go out and acquire an appropriate ingredient for the spell to work. In other words it’s nerfed… and all according to the rules!

Of course it’s up to you as DM how strictly you want to enforce this rule, and what breaks you give your PCs… maybe some kind of nature or knowledge check could determine if a character for example knows that orcs hate elves, and therefore if they have something elven on them they could go ahead and cast Banishment successfully. But overall, a strict interpretation of this material component will help seriously reduce the otherwise over-effectiveness of a potentially very problematic spell.

One final thing to note is that Banishment does require concentration, so if the PC in question casts another spell that requires concentration the baddie they just banished will pop back into existence. Similarly if the bad guy’s buddies are smart and rain blows on the caster the chances are they will quickly lose concentration and the banished boss will reappear.

So there you are… problem solved? Let me know your thoughts and experiences!

Ps. if you feel the component aspect is too arbitrary and open to interpretation and you would rather go with a rules fix, I would suggest – something similar to DM David’s suggestion – that the Banished creature returns in 1d8 rounds, in a random direction, between 5 and 50ft feet (1d10 x5) of the spot they were banished from. And they must materialise in a space (not in a wall etc.). Or you could simply give them a saving throw to return at the end of each of their turns. Just give your players advance warning of any rules changes you want to enforce and allow them to change spells if they feel that they don’t like your amended version.

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