Hipsters & Dragons

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

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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 (oceans, lakes, rivers)
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. Of God, get it away from me.
7-9. Extreme phobia. Please no, don’t make me…
10. Crippling phobia. No fucking way Jose.

More Realistic Healing Rules (5e D&D)

The more I play 5e D&D the more I feel the designers got a very complex balancing act almost exactly right. Sure a few feats (Luck!), spells (Counterspell) and special abilities (Divine Smite) are overpowered, but considering the task at hand you have to say hats off, great job.

One significant thing that bugs me though are the official rules to do with healing and rests. All too often a character that just moments ago was clobbered to zero hit points by the spiked club of a stone giant, on the cusp of death, can restore themselves to full health by laying down by a grassy knoll for a 60 minute siesta. Quite aside from this assault on our credulity, the overpowered nature of rests also undermines magical healing like Cure Light Wounds and Lay On Hands, an important function of Clerics and Paladins.

What are you doing? I just need a short rest!

After a minor 20 year hiatus from the world of fantasy (during which time I even considered it a bit naff), one of the reasons I got back into Dungeons & Dragons was the sheer awesomeness of Game of Thrones. With its gritty realistic take on the genre and a strong focus on intrigue, war and politics I started to see fantasy through a new lens… it didn’t have to be a cheesy battle of good vs. evil that relied on epic monsters and magical effects to keep its audience entertained. Done well and fantasy could be complex, character-driven and credible – but to do so it has to employ the same techniques used by the best storytellers in every other genre. The fantasy element should be the delicious icing on the spongey goodness of a believable plot line, not the cake itself. Since realising that I’ve tried to inject as much realism into my return to D&D as possible, as both a DM and player. If I’m the DM and I throw a band of goblins at the party then there needs to be a reason for that… why are these goblins in the area? How do these goblins survive? Where do they live? If they ransack every caravan that passes how does trade even continue to exist in the region? I want the worlds I create and play in to make as much sense as possible… just as George R. R. Martin’s Westeros does.

It’s my love of realism that means I take issue with the healing rules in 5th edition D&D, and the short and long rests mechanics. Chilling out for an hour after every combat shouldn’t be enough to mend broken bones, seal critical wounds and have arrow-sized holes in your torso magically clear up – nor should this frequently-taken power nap work better than most healing spells and magic potions. As for the long rest, whilst everybody loves a good night’s sleep, the crazy mechanics that you restore all HP are such you never carry an injury, no matter how severe, into the next day (let alone the rest of your life). It feels like a computer game power bar that charges up the moment you stop taking hits, which might be convenient for a shallow hack’n’slash campaign, but creates friction for those of us who want to try and believe in the worlds our characters inhabit.

The awkward moment your Rage ends…

Of course full realism for wounds and healing (I know there are some smart asses who are going to bring this up) can’t work. If that was the case you’d have to roll for potential infections for every scratch and mighty warriors would soon go the way of the way of Khal Drogo or The Hound, taken down by “flea bites”. And that’s not to mention the tedious accumulation of effects of being injured several times a day that would make gameplay a nightmare.

Official Rules: Optional Healing Variants

Taking a look at the official optional rules for rests etc. (p266 and 277 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide) there are two options that make healing even easier (cue me smashing my head against wall) and two that make it harder, so let’s take a quick look at them. Slow Natural Healing is the method that one or two of the DMs in my group use. Every day you get a full complement of Hit Dice to employ at the end of short or long rests, which is way better than getting all your HP back and full complement of Hit Dice (as per Player Handbook, p186), but still allows you to power back from the edge of death in a jiffy if needed. The Gritty Realism option however then takes thing way too far the other way… a short rest takes 8 hours and a long rest 7 days! That changes the game so radically that it’s not something I really want to even try out. It would also have a major effect on abilities and spellcasting (unless they operate under normal rest rules… it’s not really clear).

Nope, I’m going to have to sort this one out myself…

Hipsters & Dragons’ Healing Rules

To resolve this gameplay issue to my satisfaction I’ve homebrewed these optional healing rules that I believe provide a nice balance of realism and simplicity, giving the PCs something to worry about (“guys, maybe we should parlay this encounter!?”) without hamstringing them. In fact I already playtested them during a recent adventure and I was pleased with the results (the time limitations on short rests meant there were a few grumbles from the fighter in our party when he found out he can’t get all his superiority dice back after every combat anymore…. but I’m also all for PCs having to go into fights without all their powers on occasion).

Let me know your thoughts and if any feedback you might have from playtesting them… I may well fine tune them in future.

General Rules

A character can benefit from a maximum of three rests in a 24 hour period, either one long rest and two short rests, or three short rests (if for some reason there is no time for a long sleep at the end of the day). Rests must be spaced at least four hours apart, if a character is to derive any benefits from them.

Long Rest

At the end of a long rest a character recovers HPs equal to half their hit dice rounding up. Ie. a 9th level character recovers 5 hit dice worth of HP. They must roll each dice.

Short Rest

At the end of a short rest a character may recover one hit dice for every four levels they have. Ie. levels 1-4 = 1 hit dice, levels 5-8 = 2 hit dice, levels 9-12 = 3 hit dice etc. They must roll each dice.

Treating Wounds (adding Constitution Modifier)

A recuperating character may add a positive Con modifier to each hit dice, if they have one, only if their wounds are successfully treated. To be considered treated either they themselves (depending on location of wound, DM to decide) or someone else in their party must make a Wisdom (Medicine) check DC15. If this person employs one use of a healer’s kit (p151 PH), the DC is reduced to 10.

NB: As I consider Medicine ‘a technical proficiency’, non proficient players would get disadvantage on this check… suddenly it pays to actually have someone with Medicine proficiency in the party!

If the character has a minus Con. modifier the same Medicine check can negate it.

Severe Injuries

It also annoys me when characters with 1 HP run around the place as if they have never felt better. Here are a couple more optional rules you might like in order to add a dash more realism to your game.

Critically Injured: Ask your characters to make a note of what 10% of their maximum HP is (or 15% if you want to be tougher on them!) rounding any fraction, no matter how small, upwards (ie. 10% of 11 HP in this case becomes 2 HP). When characters equal or fall below this amount of HP, they automatically suffer the effects of one level of exhaustion and must make a Constitution Saving Throw DC10 to avoid suffering from two levels of exhaustion.

Last Legs: Any PC on 1 HP automatically suffers from two levels of exhaustion and must make a Con Saving Throw DC15 to avoid suffering from three levels of exhaustion.

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.

A Quick & Easy Flanking Optional Rule

So I’m going to be DMing this Sunday, and one thing I want to introduce into combat is a quick and easy flanking rule that conveys some of the danger of being outnumbered in combat. Fifth edition only has an optional rule that conveys advantage, but that can be too strong at times (and not strong enough at others, if someone is surrounded by five foes) and involves another dice roll.

So here we go, here’s my simple rules fix. In a combat between one combatant and multiple opponents, each of the multiple opponent gets a plus modifier equivalent to their number.

Example: Aragorn is fighting two orcs. Each orc gets + 2 to their attack roll. Aragorn is fighting three orcs. Each orc gets +3 to their attack roll. Aragorn is fighting six orcs (probably the max. I’d allow to attack at one time), each orc gets +6 to their attack roll.

Note that I won’t be paying any attention to the direction the single combatant is facing, which I assume to be constantly shifting in battle. So the single combatant will still get their shield and AC bonus – having a shield and being agile would no doubt be useful still, and perhaps more importantly saves additional calculations.

Will be playtesting this on Sunday… if you think it might work for your table please try it and let me know your thoughts!

How Not To Be A Really Annoying Player

Beyond finding the treasure, rescuing the princess, and saving the village / town / nation / world, every game of Dungeons and Dragons has a higher goal… that everyone playing has fun. In that sense D&D is very much a team sport, dependent on the co-operation of all gathered. As such it can quickly be ruined, or impaired, by someone that doesn’t buy into the team mentality, usually because they want, consciously or subconsciously, for the game to revolve around them.

Just like a game of five a aside (ie. soccer to any American readers) can be spoiled by a Lionel Messi wannabe who attempts to take on the entire opposition and shoot every time he gets the ball, a game of D&D can quickly be compromised by a selfish player who monopolises the DM’s attention and tries to take control of everything from the party’s strategy and decision making, to NPC interactions and combat scenarios. Whether that Messi wannabe has the skills to back up their selfishness is besides the point (in soccer at least they invariably don’t!); because by their singular approach, this one person excludes the other party members from playing a full role, reducing them to spectators for much of the session.

Partly for cathartic reasons, partly for educational ones (feel free to subtly share this with any friends who are guilty of one or two of the misdemeanours below!) and partly to remind myself to improve my own gaming behaviour (as I’ve ticked off most of the below in my time!) I’ve compiled this list of specific things that players do which the game could really do without.

One type of annoying player… according to Dorkly.

So without further ado, let’s take a look. Which of these bad gaming etiquette traits are you guilty of?

10+ Things Annoying Players Do in D&D

1. Control Familiars, Pets, Steeds, Henchmen

For many it’s one of Dungeons & Dragons most loved spells, but my number one pet peeve in the game is the Find Familiar spell as it’s a massive time sink, especially in the hands of someone who constantly abuses it. Much of D&D is waiting for your fellow party members to act, and that’s fine, but when someone’s turn consistently takes twice as long to act because they are commanding their pet hawk / bat / cat / guinea pig / woodlouse to perform some additional task I start to think how much better this adventure would be without the animal in question. Familiars also are also a massive cop out for most adventurers, allowing parties to scout way too easily, possibly infringing on the Rogue’s role (see point 3. below) and perform a host of minor tasks without character involvement or risk. Worse still than familiars however are creatures that PCs control that get an attack. Do I really want to spend my precious Sunday afternoons watching someone roll dice to see if their warhorse or henchman scores a crappy hit? Unless it’s a solo campaign, no player should try to control anything other than his player… and no DM should allow otherwise.

2. Start A Fight At Every Opportunity

We get it. You’re a real tough guy. Everyone should be quaking in their boots the minute your half orc barbarian walks into the tavern with his two handed axe. You’ve written “quick to anger” on your character sheet just to make sure that it’s perfectly ok to start a fight at every single opportunity… except it isn’t. It’s really fucking dull, and it negates any opportunity for people with actual roleplaying skills to negotiate, charm, deceive, flirt, banter, or beguile with NPCs – which you may not realise it, is what some people actually most enjoy about D&D. Just because you’ve built a character for combat doesn’t mean you should reduce every D&D encounter to a combat situation as soon as possible (nor does it make you real world tough by the way, just in case you’re confused). For one thing it’s plain ridiculous. Even in more lawless times very few people drew swords the moment an insult was exchanged… and if they did they wouldn’t live very long. Nor would your character if I was DM. For another thing it is just plain downright selfish to those PCs with non combat skills. In every adventure I’ve ever played in 75% of encounters are combat anyway, so there’s really no need to bring the remaining 25% down to your level.

3. Usurp Others’ Jobs

Since the very beginning D&D was engineered to be a team game, with each player bringing something to the table, dictated to a large extent by which character class they choose to play. For sneaking around and disarming traps there’s the Rogue, for healing and turning undead the Cleric, for mass damage and special effects there’s the Wizard, and for hand to hand combat and sucking up damage there’s the Fighter. It’s part of what makes D&D so much fun, because – at least in a well balanced adventure – every character gets their moment(s) in the spotlight. There’s few things more frustrating then than the player who insists on performing multiple roles, especially if in doing so they tread on the feet of the other PCs. If you’re the party’s fighter don’t try to be the guy that sneaks round the back to take out the guard, even if you have Stealth proficiency: let the Rogue do his job. Similarly if you’re a Barbarian with Intelligence 8 don’t take advantage of the game mechanics and declare “I roll Arcana” the moment magic happens… let the Sorcerer or Warlock have their moment in the sun. Bear this in mind especially if / when you start multiclassing. I for example currently play an Assassin / Wizard, and whilst I do have Fireball in my spellbook, unless I’m predicting a particularly tough day in the office, I rarely prepare it, because doing mass damage to a rank of foes is the Sorcerer’s job in our party. Rather I use my spells to enhance my character’s role as the Rogue.

4. Constantly Call For A Roll (Especially At The Wrong Time)

This one annoys me both as a player and as a DM… a player interrupts proceedings to loudly shout “I roll Insight / Arcana / History” and then clatters his dice over the table with the expectancy of being told something on a high roll. First of all a player should never declare he is rolling, they are not the games master… they should start by asking the DM if it’s appropriate to roll a skills check. But first of all they should wait as long as possible to allow the roleplaying in question to pan out. If for example the DM, speaking as an NPC, is acting out a conversation with another PC in your party, then let them talk it out as much as possible and see if this NPC seems trustworthy by, you know, roleplaying. Rolling dice and demanding answers is the crudest way to play your characters, and certainly should never interrupt gameplay.

5. Don’t Accept That Shit Can Happen To Them

This annoys me more when I’m the DM, but it can come into effect as a player too if refusal to accept a bad outcome ends up in a lengthy argument between PC and DM that wastes gameplay time. If bad shit happens to your character accept it without too much fuss. Speaking from my personal experience, it can be really irritating when it happens to you, especially if you feel the DM hasn’t judged the situation well or enforced the rules properly, but ultimately a large part of the fun of D&D is the risk of your character dying, so certainly things like being injured, maimed or weakened should be water off your feathered back. If you want a narrative where your character succeeds every time at everything and is all powerful then stay at home and play with yourself. Certainly don’t get in a sulk and a protracted argument with the DM that wastes everyone else’s time.

6. Play Disruptive Characters (Then Justify It As “Roleplaying”)

If your favourite alignment is Chaotic Neutral then no need to wonder who the dick on the table is… it’s you. Chaotic Neutral is the alignment the worst type of players invariably choose because it allows them to do what the fuck they want whenever they want, without doing anything as difficult as roleplaying a realistic character. Instead they can just respond on a whim to situations in order to get the best advantage of themselves without abiding by any consistency of behaviour. In fact many Chaotic Neutral players will insist that their character’s dick moves are in fact testament to their brilliant roleplaying because stealing the ally’s magical weapons or starting a bar fight for no reason is exactly what a Chaotic Neutral person would do. What they fail to see is that manufacturing a character in order to give themselves carte blanche to be a dick is even worse than just being a dick. In general PCs that are disruptive to the the rest of the party’s goals are incredibly frustrating for fellow players and DMs, usually selfishly choosing their own sense of what’s entertaining at the expense of everyone else’s.

(Castles and Cooks say it best: you don’t have to pickpocket every NPC. The inn is perfectly fine without you setting it on fire. It doesn’t matter how “cool it sounds”… Betraying your fellow adventurers for the fun of it does not make you awesome. The name for this behavior is Chaotic Stupid, and it sucks).

7. Powergame

Powergaming is of course the practice of min. / maxing all your attributes, and selecting your skills and feats to be as powerful as possible, especially in combat. Whilst a little powergaming is rarely too damaging in itself, it’s often symptomatic of someone who is going to try to steal the limelight and do everything themselves. Someone who is trying “to win D&D” as if it were a board game. The real danger here is if someone, whilst sharing the same level as other PCs in the group, has managed to make their character grossly overpowered, then it may leave other players with less to do or feeling redundant. If you catch yourself powergaming either in the character creation process, or as you level up, then start to focus instead on who your character is instead, and determine your attributes and skills based on their personality and life story, not what is going to give you the best possible damage modifier in combat.

8. Cheat (By Actively Metagaming)

Metagaming, as I’m sure you know (if you read any roleplaying blogs), is when you act on your personal knowledge of the game’s rules and mechanics, above and beyond what your character knows. It’s almost inevitable to some extent, and it can actually be tedious not to metagame at times (for example it’s usually much easier to assume that something an NPC tells one PC in private gets relayed to the rest of the party than have to act out the charade every time it happens), but it can also be abused. What I would call “active Metagaming” should be strongly discouraged. This could be doing something illogical or outrageously out of character because it confers an advantage, when you know something your character doesn’t, or for example deliberately checking the Monster Manual in between sessions to find out a foe’s prepared spells or weaknesses. It is basically cheating and can take a lot of fun out of the game for everyone – including the person that does it.

9. Get Drunk / Wasted

(I have a feeling this one just applies only to my specific group of hedonists in Barcelona! Take note guys!). Just like playing football with someone who is struggling to control the ball quickly becomes really tedious, so is roleplaying with someone who’s crossed the line of being tipsy into drunk. Communication slows down, situations have to be explained again and again, there’s a lot of shouting over one another, and arguing with the DM, as well as a lot of reckless decisions that don’t make any sense in the context of the game and break the illusion of reality you have tried to create as a group. Tea on the other hand is awesome.

10. Mistake Themselves For The Dungeon Master

This often happens when one or more players know the rules better than the Dungeon Master in session, and therefore they constantly intervene to contradict and overrule said DM’s decisions. It’s perfectly ok to point out the rules from time to time, but often a DM makes a decision based on his judgement of the scenario that effect A causes effect B to happen, and trying to argue it doesn’t because you haven’t used your Bonus Action yet is all a bit petty and trite. A sense of logic and realism is always more important that the wording of the rules and, even if you don’t agree with the DM, it’s definitely not your job to arbitrate what happens, rulebook in hand. Furthermore players who constantly badger and petition the DM for breaks or situational advantages are almost certainly doing so to the detriment of the rest of the party, who are operating under the same circumstances but are polite enough not to spend the whole session whining / arguing about it.

No, no, and thrice no…

11. Take Forever On Their Turn

You know the scenario. Goblin arrows are raining from the sky, orcs are piling over the parapet, and a monstrous ettin is bearing down on the party, spiked club in hand. The heat of battle is furnace-like in its intensity, the time for action is now – there’s no time to think. Only one player is leafing through the Player’s Handbook for the best possible spell to utilise. No not this one. Maybe this one. What’s the range again? Then he suddenly remembers his new feat could come in handy. Or is it a 5th level character ability? I’ll just look it up. Cue eyerolls. You know what instead of a normal attack action I’m going to use acrobatics to [insert outrageously improbable trick] and appear behind the ettin so I get advantage on my roll. Just to get it over with the DM consents and the player’s turn is finally over… surely? Wait, I still have half of my movement left and my bonus action! Please God, make it stop! Ok and now it’s my warhorse’s turn. He breaks free of his reins in the stables and bursts into the courtyard and tramples on the nearest orcs as he makes his way towards me…. If you recognise yourself reading this, please change yourself! Whilst considering your options in combat is one of the fun dilemmas of any D&D session, there needs to be some respect for time both in terms of realism (snap decisions!) and basic respect for your fellow gamers. Meanwhile memorising your commonly used spells and abilities can save a lot of faffing around during the time-limited Sunday sessions you and your friends have to play D&D.

Agree with this list? What other annoying things do characters on your table do? What is the best way to discourage them from doing them in future?

Apart from avoiding the above, I’ll be back with a list of awesome things you should do to make yourself a better gamer very soon!

How To Play A Rogue Assassin

So you’re thinking about playing a Rogue Assassin in 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons? It is certainly one of the most iconic archetypes in the game and one that allows you to do deadly damage to your foes, and in the right circumstances, much more damage with one blow than fighters and wizards can hope to do. Which, together with their penchant for stealth and deception, makes them a pretty exciting prospect to play.

In this post we’ll take a look at how we can build really fun Assassin characters to play (or rather Rogue characters with a view to selecting the Assassin archetype at 3rd Level), along with what skills and proficiencies are going to make you the most effective when it comes to the mechanics of the game (ie. combat and sneaking around like a mofo).

I’m a priest, honest! (Image by Pcwallart.com).

Let’s look first at the roleplaying aspect, because hey, this is a roleplaying game after all, and whilst rolling dice is fun, the RPG pay off usually comes when we successfully breath life into our stats sheet…

The Character Side of Your Character

Backstory

The first question that you have to ask yourself when creating an Assassin is how did they get into the killing game? Are you a cold-hearted bastard who considers that if everyone has to die at some point, why not make a profit from it? Or are you a principled killer: a vigilante who only deals death to those that have it coming to them (in your humble opinion)? Are you a religious killer… dedicated to the fatal work of your deity? Maybe you were trained since childhood by an Assassin’s Guild to be an agent of death – killing has become an instinct to you, perfected by your perverse upbringing. Consider as well that your character doesn’t have to be a 24 carat pure Assassin. Maybe they are a spy or secret agent, who just happens to be particularly good at drawing a dagger across the throats of those who stand in their way – more in the mould of a medieval James Bond.

Once you’ve answered that question you also need to consider how then you ended up with your fellow player characters, as an adventurer. Have you reformed your ways (for those starting at 1st Level this could be a bit problematic as you don’t technically become an Assassin until 3rd Level)? Are you between contracts and in need of some fast cash (if so, why… do you owe someone important a big debt?)? Has an NPC sent you to spy on your fellow players? Have you been sent adventuring by your guild to get some real world experience? Or maybe you’ve rejected and run away from your guild training (let’s hope they took it well!)?

In all cases you should consult with your DM… if you’re spying on your fellow players for example do you need to present yourself as something else and hide your Rogue abilities? Or in the example where you were raised as a child by your guild, do you at first represent the guild loyally (until at least 3rd level when you complete your training) before starting to have doubts about the life you were groomed into? This could be a great story development which you could play out. By communicating with your DM you will both get ideas from him about how you can fit into his world and his adventure, as well as fit into the party, and in turn – if he’s a good DM – give him plot hooks that can shape the story you will be building together.

When I built my own Rogue Assassin I decided to create a full profile of the White Scorpions Assassin’s Guild to give more colour to my hitwoman, complete with guild history, power structure, current grandmaster, favoured killing methods, initiation ceremony and motto. I will share it soon with you!

UPDATE: I just published an e-book on the Order of the White Scorpions on DMs Guild. You can buy it for just 2.99 USD and I hope it will give you a big headstart on fleshing out an awesome character.

Now available to buy on the DMs Guild…

Using Official D&D “Backgrounds”

Don’t forget to take advantage of the excellent Backgrounds section in the 5th Edition Player’s Handbook to flesh our your character (or even create them from scratch). Charlatan, Criminal and Urchin are the obvious ones to consider, but often the best character ideas come from combining two seemingly miss-matched premises. What if the bespectacled and weedy cartographer (Guild Artisan background) puts down his pen and inks at night to fire poisoned darts into his victims’ necks from his hand-made blowgun? Or maybe the boyish Orlando Bloom lookalike uses his celebrity status as playboy poet (Entertainer background) to infiltrate the palaces and castles of the rich and famous in order to do his dirty work.

Once you’ve made a decision be sure to roll on the Personality Trait, Ideal, Bond and Flaw tables. As you get a sense of your character you might prefer to choose one (or more) from each table (or from the tables of another background) than roll randomly… then again rolling randomly can do wonders for your creativity, as it forces you to join the dots in a credible way, no matter how far away they are.

Rolling randomly on the Charlatan’s tables just now I got the following:

Personality Trait
3. Flattery is my preferred trick for getting what I want.

Ideal
2. Fairness. I never target people who can’t afford to lose a few coins.

Bond
6. I swindled and ruined a person who didn’t deserve it. I seek to atone for my misdeeds but might never be able to forgive myself.

Flaw
2. I’m always in debt. I spend my ill gotten gains on decadent luxuries faster than I bring them in.

From these rolls I’m already getting a firm idea of a new character. A lush gambler with a love of the high life, who once – out of desperation – conned a woman who loved him out of her life fortune. She died shortly after and he has never quite forgiven himself, but nor has he managed to clean up his act completely. He still robs, cheats and cons to pay for his lifestyle, but only from the rich. He is sounding more like a Thief than an Assassin, but I’m going to toughen him up a bit by imagining he is from low nobility and an experienced dueller with the rapier. His goal in any fight is simply to win by any means necessary, preferably without exposing himself to any danger, explaining his ability to use the Rogue’s Sneak Attack ability and later Assassinate ability. In short he is a dissolute rake, with a thin sense of honour, but a sense of honour nonetheless and it could be a lot of fun playing with the ambiguities in his character.

So there you go guys… roll dem dice and watch as – out of thin air – a fully fledged character idea emerges!

(By the way, my e-book on The Order of the White Scorpions does include a new background ‘Trainee Assassin’ which would suit anyone wanting to play a character groomed for the killing game from an early age).

Important: Fitting Into The Party

Remember, whilst you might have a lot of fun spying on your fellow characters, lying to them and creating chaos, it’s not always that much fun for the others – especially if you end up stabbing them in the back with a poisoned dagger “because it’s in my character”. One of the challenges of playing Assassins, and Rogues in general, is finding a credible reason for them to be with the party and not only that but be on their side, and keep the game fun for everyone. Even if you start by spying on them, perhaps later, after they’ve saved your life more times that you can count, your loyalties and values change and you become a trusted team member.

I solved this problem by having my Assassin work for a guild who deal in strictly just killings. This meant I could play a principled character of good alignment, one who could ally easily with the objectives of my party as they performed various missions against the forces of evil.

Lovely night for a lakeside stroll isn’t it?

Building A Kick-Ass Assassin

Now that you’ve got a solid backstory, let’s engage in a bit of powergaming (I know you didn’t really come here for the roleplaying tips!) and take a look at how to build your character for maximum effectiveness.

Choosing Your Race

Dexterity is what all Rogues live and die by, so it makes sense to look at the races that start by giving you a boost on this crucial skill. That is Elf (+2), Forest Gnome (+1), Halfling (+2) and Human (+1), and potentially Half Elf (+1). The idea of a Forest Gnome or Halfling Assassin seems fairly ludicrous to me… but then again remember what I said before about mismatches leading to great characters! What about a happy go lucky, somewhat portly female halfling, a maternal figure who loves singing, cooking, cleaning… and killing people? However, if you’ve been inspired by visions of a stealthy ninja-like shadow slinking over castle parapets and firing poisoned crossbow bolts at corrupt Princes then definitely Elf, Human or Half Elf make more sense. If you consider that humans can’t see in the dark, which is a major disadvantage if you’re Assassin, I’d put Elf and Half Elf ahead. As I find the idea of an Elf Assassin incongruous with their nature (and a Dark Elf one too cliched), I’d put Half Elf as my favourite Assassin race. (Half Orcs and Tieflings as natural outsiders could be decent shouts too).

Whatever you decide bump Dex up to the maximum, as you’ll be using it for the majority of your skills, your AC, initiative and your to hit and damage modifiers. Second tier attributes are Charisma (so that you can have a lot of fun conning, charming and deceiving NPCs) and Intelligence (for Investigation, but more importantly for when you multiclass as a Wizard, as I’m going to suggest!), whilst Constitution is handy if you plan to fight hand to hand in combat (more fun than pussying around with bows IMHO!), especially as you are only proficient in light armour and therefore relatively easy to hit. Strength is useless to you, especially if your DM lets you use Acrobatics for climbing checks (as our does!), and Wisdom too, as you’ll take Expertise function in Perception the only skill for which you will need it (although you will fail an annoying amount of Saving Throws because of it!).

Choosing Proficiencies

The Rogue class gives you four proficiencies, you should get an extra two from your background, plus Half Elf as a Race grants you another two, so you could start the game with a whopping 8 proficiencies – two of which you can choose Expertise in, allowing you to double your proficiency bonus. Here are the most useful ones, starting with what I consider the most essential.

Stealth – Hiding and sneaking up on foes is key to taking advantage of your Sneak Attack and Assassinate skills. Choose expertise in this.
Perception – Probably the most rolled skill check in the game, plus no one likes being surprised. Consider strongly for expertise.
Acrobatics – Depending on your DM you might roll Acrobatics for jumping over rooftops, tumbling out of windows and cartwheeling out of danger, or sometimes Athletics. I love Acrobatics but possibly if you have a high Dex. anyway and your DM insists on Athletics checks for climbing and jumping choose Athletics instead.
Athletics – See above.
Sleight of Hand – Useful for slipping poison into your victim’s wine and other subtleties.
Deception – Fast talking, lying, charming or disguising yourself.
Insight – For determining if others are lying to you.
Investigation – Useful for finding traps and hidden objects, although many DMs use Perception checks.
Persuasion – For general charm.
Arcana – Useful if you want to multiclass as a Wizard later.

Optimising Combat

One weapon combination really stands out for Assassin’s as the best and that is fighting with two short swords (or for a more oriental flavour scimitars), one in each hand. The rules state (p.195 of the Player’s Handbook) that as long as both weapons are “light” then you can use your main action to attack with one, and your bonus action to attack with the other. As shortswords (and scimitars) are not only “light” but also “finesse” weapons you can use your Dexterity modifier for both attack and damage rolls (note, when you use your bonus action to attack with your offhand you don’t get a damage bonus however). This means you can not only use your best skill modifier in combat but you get more attacks than most fighters at first level. There’s an additional reason for favouring two weapons however. As a Rogue you will want to be initiating combat more often than not, jumping out of shadows to get your Sneak Attack / Assassinate bonuses. Once you’ve been spotted however getting your Sneak Attack bonus is harder… you may have to dissolve into the melee to reappear somewhere else, or flank a creature already engaged in the fight… which means you really don’t want to miss your initial thrust, or any other time you get a Sneak Attack. With two chances to hit that means even if you mess up your first attack, you can still strike using your bonus action and ensure your Sneak Attack damage gets dealt (you can only do Sneak Attack damage once a turn).

Aside from two shortswords / scimitars (or daggers if you fancy a weapon you can throw as well!), you will want to carry a range weapon. Range weapons still qualify for Sneak Attack and since you’re likely not to the toughest or heavily armoured dude on the battlefield being able to keep your distance on occasion is invaluable. Unless you’re a shortass (halfling or gnome) then a longbow beats a shortbow, and whilst a crossbow is stylish if I was the DM I would find ways to penalise anyone trying to sneak around with an 18lb heavy crossbow, so a light or handcrossbow makes more sense.

Finally, whilst you might put yourself at a disadvantage in terms of game mechanics, an iconic weapon can lend a lot of fun flavour to your character. For this reason you might want to consider fighting with a scimitar and sickle, blowgun, or perhaps poison-coated whip. Check out this list for inspiration. Seriously regretting not arming my own character with a Xena Warrior Princess style Chakram. Speak to your DM about making fair rules for any new weapons.

Using Poison

Poison somewhat problematic in D&D as really there’s little reason why an Assassin wouldn’t be using deadly poison nonstop… other than the fact it would unbalance the game. I guess for that reason using poisons is expensive and a little impractical. In the Player’s Handbook (p153) it lists a vial of basic poison as 100 GBP and says that is only enough to coat one blade, or three pieces of ammunition. So not much bang for your buck. Worst of all it does a measly 1d4 damage – and that’s only if the victim doesn’t succeed a DC10 constitution check. Considering that it takes an action to apply the poison in the first place, this is underwhelming to say the least. After level one it’s completely pointless.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide attempts to come to the rescue (p. 257 and 258) with a more detailed list of potentially deadly toxins, although all of them are fantasy poisons that retail at outrageous prices (I would have preferred some poisons from the real world at sensible prices). The most attainable is Serpent Venom, harvested from giant poisonous snakes and retailing at 200 gp a dose, which does a semi-respectable 3d6 damage – although again the saving throw DC is just 11. You’ll need to pay ten times the amount (ie a whopping 2000 gp!) to get a dose of venom worthy of the name in the form of Purple Worm Poison which does 12d6 damage, with a saving throw DC of 19.

The ingested poisons, for slipping into someone’s cider glass, are priced similarly, and make you wonder why you couldn’t just administer some hemlock or rat poison for a fraction of the price that might in addition do the job it is intended to do. Something like Assassin’s Blood, 150 gp, does a paltry 1d12 damage and is saved on a DC10 anyway. Hardly your toxin of choice for a high profile hit job. (It is at least one of the few poisons that gives the victim the actual condition of being “poisoned”. According to p292 of the PH: a poisoned creature has disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks).

Finally the rules for harvesting poisons are perhaps the most ridiculous… you can read them yourselves (DMG p258) but in most cases you are more likely to do damage to yourself than harvest a lethal dose.

Overall you are probably best speaking to your DM about what poisons you have access to, and what are the rules that govern using them. Laying low creatures with every nick of your blade is obviously going to make your character massively overpowered, but at least semi-frequent use of toxic materials should be part and parcel of playing an Assassin IMHO. (Remember as well that poison won’t work on many creatures like undead, demons and supernatural beings, whilst as a DM I would always give large creatures advantage on poison saving throws as obviously it’s exponentially harder to bring down an Ogre than a kobold with a nasty dose).

If there’s any shout for it, I might even create some new poisons for 5e D&D. Let me know if that you would interest you in the comments!

UPDATE: I do include playtested rules for a new poison in my aforementioned e-book. Deathstalker Scorpion Venom is an injury poison, a concentrated dose of which brings on temporary paralysis (on a failed save) allowing its administrator to dispatch their victim.

Your Equipment

As a Rogue you start with Leather armour, which is a bit of a joke as it only gives you 11AC instead of 10 with no protection whatsoever. Real life leather armour is actually really tough, so not sure why WOTC nerfed it for 5th edition. Anyway it only costs 45 gp to upgrade to studded leather, giving you AC12, which is sadly as about as high as you’re going to get for armour alone – luckily your dex. modifier as discussed is your best friend and you should have minimum 16 dex / +3 modifier to start with.

Armour aside you also get a Burglar’s Pack (p.151 of PH), which contains, I quote: a backpack, a bag of 1000 ball bearings, 10 feet of string, a bell, 5 candles, a crowbar, a hammer, 10 pitons, a hooded lantern, 2 flasks of oil, 5 days rations, a tinderbox and a waterskin. The pack also has 50 feet of hempen rope strapped to the side of it. Plus Thieves’ Tools (p154 of PH), which contains, I paraphrase: a small file, a set of lock picks, a small mirror mounted on a metal handle, a set of narrow-bladed scissors, and a pair of pliers.

The ballbearings can be useful to aid an escape… see also caltrops (both p.151 of the PH). I would definitely add a grappling hook to your list of possessions and maybe a wrist sheath, from which you can surreptitiously pop a knife/dagger in case of emergency. If you can dig out the old 2nd edition Thieves Handbook it had a load of good ideas to supplement your equipment with the likes of marked cards, loaded dice, blinding powder, weaponblack and more. Discuss with your DM what they might allow.

Don’t Miss This Feat!

Generally speaking when you have the chance to go for an ability score improvement or a feat, you’re going to want to take the chance to add another +2 to your Dexterity. As this will increase you modifier by +1, and that modifier goes on your AC, your attack rolls, your initiative and many skills checks… however there is one feat that is well worth selecting in my experience. And that is Alert. It doesn’t sound too sexy at first, its main boon being a +5 to initiative but when combined with your high dex. it pretty much guarantees you will always act first in combat, often allowing you to kill a foe before they have time to strike. Indeed, let’s read again the wording of the Assassinate skill which says: you are deadliest when you get the drop on your enemies. You have advantage on attack rolls against any creature that hasn’t taken a turn in the combat yet. In other words you can use Sneak Attack even without sneaking if you act first. (Of course it’s much better if they are surprised because: any hit you score against a creature that is surprised is a critical hit . Remember, in the case of surprise you would be getting your Sneak Attack anyway, but with Assassinate it becomes a critical Sneak Attack, meaning you roll ALL your damage dice twice, then add any modifiers).

I can’t really emphasise how much acting first is an advantage for a Rogue so select this feat and find out for yourself. The only other tempting feats for the Assassin are Sharpshooter and Lucky, the latter of which is banned on our table as it’s like having three inspiration points a day. Which is plain silly.

Multiclassing…

What’s more deadly than an Assassin? An Assassin that can radically alter their own appearance, create an illusionary diversion, make guards magically fall asleep or even turn themselves invisible. Whilst most Wizards don’t want to use their precious spells slots on utility spells, preferring to stake their authority in combat with the likes of Thunderwave and Fireball, there are dozens of 1st and 2nd level spells that perfectly compliment your roguish abilities, making multiclassing as a Wizard a fantastic option for optimising your gameplay.

Using the Prestigitation cantrip you could snuff out a candle, before closing in for the kill in a darkened room. Or on the battlefield you could use Misty Step to appear behind your opponent, granting you advantage (at the DM’s discretion), and therefore Sneak Attack bonuses on your strike. Need to beat a hasty retreat from the palace? Grease, Fog Cloud or Web will all slow down those pesky guards… or select my personal fave way of exiting the building by jumping out of a top floor window and casting Feather Fall as a reaction on the way down. Also worth noting, the easily neglected Shield spell is a life saver, literally, for combat situations and can also be cast using just a reaction.

More Inspiration

Hopefully this article has got you excited about playing a 5th Edition Rogue Assassin. Don’t cop out of roleplaying by opting for the “silent killer” mould though… use my tips to come up with hitman with both personality and power. If I haven’t got your creative juices flowing yet then why not take some inspiration from some of fiction’s best loved assassins, like Nikita, Leon, Altaïr ibn-La’Ahad, 007, and many more. NerdMuch have a list of eight of the best, whilst you can find a pretty comprehensive list on Wikipedia.

A reminder that you can find the stats and personality of my own dagger in the dark, Xenia “Night Sting” Zanetti together with a profile of the guild she works for: The White Scorpions on this very blog.

You can even power up your PC, give them a tonne of extra credibility and support the handsome, kitten-saving, environmentally sustainable and downright loveable – but very poor – guy behind Hipsters & Dragons by buying his e-book.

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

Is Counterspell Overpowered? How To Deal With Counterspell as a DM…

Is Counterspell overpowered? The answer is probably yes. Using just a reaction (ie. you can still use your own action to cast another spell or attack!), and a third level spell slot (minimum), you can negate the effect of any spell of 3rd level or lower cast within 60ft of you, and you have a decent chance of bringing higher level spells to a grinding halt as well.

During a recent encounter our poor Dungeon Master grew quite frustrated as the sorcerer in our party rendered a high level cleric powerless, by negating a succession of dangerous spells that would have put the combat right in the balance, all with just a couple of 3rd level spell slots. Maybe that’s why DM David voted it one of the four most annoying spells in D&D!

Counter this beeactch... (Artwork by Biffno on Deviantart)

Counter this beeatch… (Artwork by Biffno on Deviantart)

As a Dungeon Master the spell carries a double annoyance. It can make it harder to judge how tough to make encounters (if Fire Storm takes effect the party is going to be in a lot of trouble… if it doesn’t it could turn into a cakewalk), and from a story point of view it can replace epic happenings with the empty hiss of arcane magic fizzling out into nothing.

Of course you could simply ban the spell from the table, but that can feel pretty rough on those who consider it a key weapon in their armoury, so let’s look at some ways you can legitimately prevent it from getting overpowered without changing the existing rules.

1. Perception Check
The caster of Counterspell has to be able to see the caster of the spell they are trying to interrupt. But let’s remember that they don’t get a little notification in their inbox saying “someone within 60ft of you is trying to cast a spell, would you like to try and counter it?” Just because it’s possible for character A. to see character B., ie. there is a clear line of sight, doesn’t mean that character A. was looking in that direction at exactly the right moment. Unless the character in question was unquestionably focused on the caster have them roll a Perception check to see if they notice what the hell is going on. On a chaotic battlefield with multiple casters I’d recommend a DC of around 15.

2. Don’t Automatically Reveal What Spell Is Being Cast
If you know one or more of your players has Counterspell up their wizards’ sleeves, then be smart. Don’t declare what spell your NPC is casting. Simply inform your player(s) that they see a creature (if indeed they do see them… see points 1. and 2.) about to cast a spell, and have them roll an Arcana check DC15. If they pass they correctly guess the spell being cast, otherwise they have no idea and have to gamble whether or not to use their spell slot to try and counter the spell on what might just be a magic missile or cantrip. What’s more if the character has never seen the spell cast before give them disadvantage on their Arcana roll (if they have seen it plenty, or frequently cast it themselves, you should probably give them advantage). If you want to be really mean roll for them privately, behind your screen, and feed them misinformation when they fail their roll. This way they never know for sure, because even when they pass the check and you tell them the truth, they don’t know they passed the roll, so can’t be sure to trust their character’s assessment.

3. Make The Players Act Instantly
The uncertainty caused by point 3. will create a lot hesitation… snap your fingers, and if they haven’t decided tell them they’re too late! They just lost their reaction. Better luck next time. (That is if they survive the Lich’s Power Word Kill… mwah ha ha ha!).

4. Get The Rules Right
When the spell being cast is higher than the spell slot being used to interrupt it the Counterspeller must make a DC check of 10 plus the spell level. They can add their spellcasting ability but NOT their proficiency bonus. (I mention this because we got this wrong on our table and indeed our frustrated DM might have got off at least one more spell if we had this clearer! There is actually a skill called Improved Abjuration available to Wizards who follow the School of Abjuration who reach 10th level that enables them to add their proficiency bonuses to this roll [p.115 of the Player’s Handbook]… chances are your players don’t have that!).

5. One Reaction A Turn Max.
Remember the spell does take a reaction. And every character only gets one reaction a round. So if they’ve cast Shield already for example, or indeed another Counterspell, or used Uncanny Dodge to halve some damage (if they are multiclass Rogue), then they’re shit out of luck.

6. Fight Fire(ball Extinguisher) with Fire(ball Extinguisher)
One other very obvious way to fight the power of Counterspell is to arm all your NPCs casters with it as well – a particularly good tactic if you want to persuade magic using characters on your table to drop it from gameplay altogether, as you’ll soon see them get frustrated when their own spells fizzle out and the combat is decided by the fighters in the party. (Do note however, despite some DMs arguing that you can, you can’t Counterspell a Counterspell. Aside from the ridiculousness that would ensue, that would also involve casting two spells simultaneously, which is not only against the rules, but also against common sense. Additionally CS is so fast there’s no way you could react to it… most spells take several seconds to cast, CS takes a split second).

Hipster Rules Fix

If, after applying all these factors to your gameplay, you still feel that the spell is overpowered let me suggest the following rules fix. Instead of setting a DC, the CS caster must contest the original caster each using their spellcasting ability modifier. If one of them is using a higher spell slot than the other, they get +2 modifier per slot higher.

Eg. Gandalf is a wizard with Intelligence 18 (+4 spellcasting modifier) and seeing the dastardly Harry Potter (Intelligence 16, +3 modifier) preparing a nefarious incantation he successfully rolls Arcana to recognise it. It’s the level 7 Finger of Death spell! Gandalf uses his highest spell slot left, a level 6, to try to counter it. He rolls a 15, which becomes 19 with his spellcasting modifier. Harry rolls 13, plus his own spellcasting modifier of 3, and an additional plus 2 as his spell is one level higher than the slot being used to counter it. His total is 18 (a draw would result in the spell being cast). Gandalf succeeds in his counter… just.

In my rules fix there’s also no such thing as an automatic counter, so you should roll/contest if even if you are countering a spell using a higher spell slot, getting +2 on your roll per slot level higher you use. (Otherwise a higher level wizard would systematically destroy a lower one without a chance, which is against the spirit of D&D).

Personally I quite like Counterspell, probably because I currently play as a multi-class Fighter / Rogue / Wizard, and it gives me a chance at least to avoid seriously nasty spells of magic users before engaging them in melee, where I have the upper hand. As someone with a long history of failing saving throws I really enjoy getting a second chance to avoid some excruciatingly annoying effect that is going to take my character out of the game for the rest of the encounter…

Plus this guy has some good advice on making it fun!

The Hipsters Play Curse of Strahd…

Last month we played the final session of a campaign that our Dungeon Master, Juan, had adapted from the official Curse of Strahd adventure published by Wizards of the Coast, especially for The Hipsters.

This was my first time playing an official D&D adventure and I really loved it. From my perspective it seemed like it gave the DM the perfect backdrop for running the campaign, giving him lots of great material and scenarios to work with, and the way he adapted it to our existing storyline worked really well.

watch curse of strahd online dnd session

He came from the fog…. (Photo sourced here).

In our storyline, after Suzail, the capital of Cormyr (in the Forgotten Realms setting), was destroyed by the Demon Lord Orcus, a letter arrived from a mysterious lord called Edgar Markov (Count Strahd in the official version of the story), who claimed to have defeated Orcus and only wanted the hand of the Princess Silva in marriage as reward. This all sounded pretty suspicious so The Shadowdale Allstars (as I like to refer to our group of adventurers) went to check out wtf was going on. The ever reckless Nada, a 10 year old fighter/rogue/warlock, decided to smuggle the Princess into our party as she was desperate to sneak a peak at this Lord who she may or may not be marrying. Bad idea, as pretty much the first thing that happened when we entered the cursed, fog-drenched land of Barovia, was that Markov appeared and used his considerable Vampiric powers to steal the poor Princess from us…

one of our first episodes was an encounter with a fortune teller who divined our futures with the help of some tarot cards – the results of which gave us each a destiny to fulfil within Barovia, and a perfect excuse to explore this evil land

An open assault on Castle Ravenloft, Markov’s haunted home, would have been reckless, whereas the magical and nefarious fog meant that was no way of returning home for reinforcements. We were trapped in Barovia, in what was to be “a sandbox adventure”. A sandbox campaign is one in which players are dropped into an environment and given a free run of what to do, without much prodding or leading by the nose from the DM (as opposed to a railroad adventure, when players are led by cause and effect from one encounter to another, with little room for deviating off track… I’ll discuss the pros and cons of these two styles in another post!). The Achilles Heel of any sandbox campaign is that the players can lack any motivation or goals, but one of our first episodes was an encounter with a fortune teller who divined our futures with the help of some tarot cards – the results of which gave us each a destiny to fulfil within Barovia, and a perfect excuse to explore this evil land. Whether it was to find a magical item, enlist an ally, or discover the Count’s personal secrets, we had plenty to do, and it was up to us how we went about doing this and in what order – with the overall goal of powering up enough to take on and defeat Markov and rescue the princess (if she wasn’t [un]dead already).

The Hipsters do battle in Barovia...

The Hipsters do battle in Barovia…

This made the game very satisfying from a playing point of view, and one reason why purchasing an adventure like Curse of Strahd can be money well spent. As a DM usually its hard enough to create all the details of three or four encounters that will make up a gaming session, let alone plan for the possibility of dozens more that giving the players a free rein could entail. But with an entire region mapped out in detail, the DM could give us a huge amount of freedom to explore, and if we didn’t happen on a particular episode as planned then it’s not the DM’s own work that goes to waste (which trust me is very painful!), it’s Chris Perkins‘ and hey we paid 50 dollars for the book so that’s fine.

On top of having all this material ready to go in any given session, the quality of the material is first class, with evocative descriptions, well-fleshed out NPCs and, best of all, really engaging encounters – aside from the aforementioned tarot readings, playing regional politics with werewolves, squabbling with gypsies and deciding whether or not to accept “dark gifts” in the Lich’s library were all really satisfying. I’ll no doubt buy the book myself and review it from a DM’s point of view at a future date, but as a player it gets two thumbs up.

the quality of the material is first class, with evocative descriptions, well-fleshed out NPCs and, best of all, really engaging encounters

Anyway I decided to film The Hipsters as we played what turned out to be our final gaming session in Barovia. We had actually met and defeated Markov the session before, killing him in an intense battle in the village, but, having discovered and read his diary, we knew we would have to journey to Castle Ravenloft and find the coffin where he regenerates after death, and finish him off for good. And that’s where these videos start…

As the session was nearly 9 hours long (including some downtime), I split the recording as I went along into five parts. I’ve never filmed anything before, so there’s some gaps, and mistakes, but overall you can get a good picture of how we play and hopefully it’s some fun footage to have in the background if you’re a fellow D&D addict like me.

Critical Fumble Tables for 5e D&D

What happens when you roll a 1 for an attack roll in Dungeons & Dragons? Well according to the official 5th Edition rules, not too much.

“If the d20 roll for an attack is a 1, the attack misses regardless of any modifiers or the target’s AC.” (p194 of the Player’s Handbook).

So you automatically miss, no matter what your attack roll modifier is and no matter how easy a target your opponent is, but nothing bad happens to mirror the powerful effects of scoring a critical hit when you roll a 20 (when you do double damage to your foe, and – at the DM’s discretion – also roll on the Lingering Injuries table – p272 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide).

a “critical fumble” blasts open the door of opportunity for something funny, unexpected or challenging to happen to both PCs and NPCs/Monsters

That’s a bit boring frankly speaking! As far as I’m concerned a “critical fumble” blasts open the door of opportunity for something funny, unexpected or challenging to happen to both PCs and NPCs/Monsters, and every DM worth his salt will want to seize this opportunity to spice up a combat. Making up details on the fly can be challenging (a DM has plenty to think about as it is!) and can even make PCs feel victimised if they bear the brunt of an ad hoc ruling – leading to tedious arguments and/or an unhappy player. But, by having a clear table that applies to 1s rolled on attacks by both players and monsters, not only can you depend on some interesting outcomes for your D&D combats… but hey you can blame it all on the dice!

Dammit, not again...

Dammit, not again…

So without further ado, here is Hipsters & Dragons very own homebrew critical fumbles chart for melee weapons (with separate charts for both thrown and fired range weapons underneath). Just buy me a beer sometime!

UPDATE. I’ve polished up these tables, added charts for natural weapons and spell attacks and published on the DMs Guild in a lovely printable PDF. If you’d like to donate a dollar to the cause, even better!

Critical Fumbles Table (Melee Weapons)

Roll a d20…

1-2. Weapon Break. The force of your blow, or parrying that of your opponent’s, causes your weapon to snap in two. (For magical weapons roll an additional d10, on a 1 they break).

3-4. Goodbye Fair Blade! Roll an Strength / Athletics check DC 15, or your weapon flies d12 feet out of your hand in a random direction. If you have any movement and a bonus action left you can go and pick it up. In doing so you provoke an opportunity attack from anyone in the area, starting with your most immediate opponent. (Otherwise you could simply draw a second weapon, if you have one, using a bonus action).

5-6. Wild Swing. You overextend yourself going for the kill. Your opponent gains advantage on their next attack roll.

7. Stuck Weapon. Your weapon gets stuck in your opponent’s shield, armour, hide, or else in a tree or wall, or the ground. Roll a Strength check to see if you can free it using a bonus action. The DC is 8 + your strength modifier.

8. Ooops! You hit an unintended foe in combat. Randomise all combatants within 5 feet and roll a second attack roll, if you beat their armour class roll damage as if they were your intended target. (Discount sneak attack damage for Rogues).

9. Self Inflicted wound. You manage to slice yourself with your own blade, roll normal damage and half it. (Applies to combatants using slashing weapons and flails only. Other weapon types roll again. Discount sneak attack damage for Rogues).

10-14. Slip Up. You lose your footing. Roll Dexterity / Acrobatics check (DC15) or fall prone. Your turn has ended and melee attacks have advantage on you (see p292 of PH for conditions of being prone).

15. Pulled Muscle (Arms). Roll a Constitution Saving Throw DC15 or the strain of your attack causes you to pull a muscle in your upper body. You have disadvantage in attack rolls and ability checks requiring upper body strength until you have completed three long rests, or received magical healing.

16. Pulled Muscle (Legs). Roll a Constitution Saving Throw DC15 or the strain of combat causes you to pull a muscle in your leg. Your movement is halved, and you lose your dex modifier to AC and initiative, and you have disadvantage on any ability checks that require lower body strength, until you have completed three long rests, or received magical healing.

17-18. Loss of Nerve. Man your opponent looks tough. Make a Wisdom Saving Throw with a base DC of 10 modified by +2 for every hit dice higher than you your opponent has (or -2 for every hit dice less). On a fail you are frightened (see p292 of Player’s Handbook). After one turn you can attempt the saving throw again.

19. Broken Item. In the hurly burly of combat, something fragile – like a magic potion – you’re carrying breaks. Randomise fragile objects you have in your possession and roll to determine which. (Note, better to do this when the combat is over).

20. A Little Accident. Either through fear, excitement or simply needing to go, you soil yourself. 75% chance it’s only pee.

Critical Misses Table (Shooting Range Weapons)

Roll a d20…

1-2. Weapon Break. Your bow shaft or a mechanism in your crossbow breaks and is now useless. (For magical weapons roll an additional d10, on a 1 they break).

3-5. String Break. Your bowstring snaps. It takes 15 minutes to restring it.

6-8. Loose String. Your string comes loose. You lose this attack. Starting next turn you can make a sleight of hand check DC15 to fix it. Each attempt takes one turn.

9-16. Ooops! You hit an unintended random target. Randomise all combatants within 10 feet (for a short range attack, or 30 feet for a long range attack) and roll a second attack roll, if you beat their armour class roll damage as if they were your intended target (discount sneak attack damage for Rogues).

17-18. Ammo Accident. Your quiver spills (50% strap broken, 50% you tilt it over by accident), and the remainder of your arrows / bolts fall to the floor. If you remain still you can use a bonus action to pick up one a round and still fire using your action. Otherwise you can use an action to pick up 2d8 and put them back in your quiver.

19. Pulled Muscle (Upper Body). Roll a Constitution Saving Throw DC15 or the strain of your attack causes you to pull a muscle in your upper body. You have disadvantage in attack rolls and ability checks requiring upper body strength until you have completed three long rests, or received magical healing.

20. Slip Up. You lose your footing. Roll Dexterity / Acrobatics (DC15) or fall prone. Your turn has ended and melee attacks have advantage on you (see p292 of PH for conditions of being prone).

Critical Misses Table (Thrown Range Weapons)

Roll a d10

1. Weapon Break. The impact of your weapon hitting a tree, the ground, a shield etc. causes it to break. It is now useless. (For magical weapons roll an additional d10, on a 1 they break).

2. Pulled Muscle (Arms). Roll a Constitution Saving Throw DC15 or the strain of your attack causes you to pull a muscle in your upper body. You have disadvantage in attack rolls and ability checks requiring upper body strength until you have completed three long rests, or received magical healing.

3-4. Slip Up. You lose your footing. Roll Dexterity / Acrobatics (DC15) or fall prone. Your turn has ended and melee attacks have advantage on you (see p292 of PH for conditions of being prone).

5-9. Ooops! You hit an unintended random target. Randomise all combatants within 10 feet (for a short range attack, or 30 feet for a long range attack) and roll a second attack roll, if you beat their armour class roll damage as if they were your intended target (discount sneak attack damage for Rogues).

10. WTF? You launch a comically bad projectile attack nowhere near your intended opponent – it flies into a huge empty space (or at DM’s discretion a distant unintended target) taking your self confidence with it. Roll wisdom saving throw DC15, or suffer disadvantage to attack rolls until you next score a hit on an opponent.

Critical Fumbles for High Level Characters. Once your PCs have two or three attacks a round, they might start rolling an incongruous number of fumbles, especially for heroes of their ability. Whilst being a higher level should also make passing some saving throws / skills checks easier, as well as reduce the chance of weapon breaks (as most high level characters fight with magical weapons), if you feel it’s necessary you could bring in a new rule. Starting at Level 5 you could give them a fumble saving throw where if they roll their level or below on a d20 they suffer no adverse effects. That way extremely high level characters will rarely fumble. Or you could rule that only if they roll a 1 on their first attack of their round do they have to consult this table. Rolling a 1 on any other attack and it’s just an automatic miss.

Like this? I’ve got a few other homebrew rules that you might like as well. If you have a chance to play test any of them do let me know in the comments. Would love to hear from you…

Update, what happens when a monster with natural weapons, such as bite, claw or tail attack, rolls a 1? Here we go….

Critical Misses Table (Natural Weapons)

Roll a d10.

1-2. Ouch! The attacker snaps one or several teeth / claws on its target’s weapon or armour, or nearby surface. They receive 1d3hp of damage, and furthermore they must subtract the result of the same d3 roll from damage done from this attack from now on. (Ignore for tail attacks).

3-5. Wild Swing. The attacker overextends itself going for the kill. Their intended target gains advantage on their next attack roll.

6-7. Slip Up. The attacker loses its footing. Roll Dexterity / Acrobatics check (DC15) or fall prone. Their turn has ended and melee attacks have advantage on you (see p292 of PH for conditions of being prone). Creatures with more than two legs are immune to this effect.

8-10. Loss of Nerve. The attacker is scared. They must make a Wisdom Saving Throw with a base DC of 10 modified by +2 for every hit dice higher the target of the attack has vs. the attacker (or -2 for every hit dice less). On a fail they are frightened (see p292 of Player’s Handbook). After one turn they can attempt the saving throw again. Creatures that inspire fear are immune to this effect (unless their target also inspires fear).

Now available on the DMs Guild…

>>> Download these tables in a handy and printable PDF form <<<

Using Skills Without Proficiency (5e D&D)

Can I use a skill that I’m not proficient in?

According to the letter of the rules, yes you can. Page 174 of the Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook states:

“Proficiency in a skill means an individual can add his or her proficiency bonus to ability checks that involve that skill. Without proficiency in the skill, the individual makes a normal ability check [adding just their ability modifier].”

Remember your proficiency bonus is the one that goes up as you gain levels. It starts at +2 at level one and is added to all skills checks your proficient in, as well as to attack rolls with weapons you’re proficient in. Check p15 of the Player’s Handbook for a table that shows proficiency bonuses next to character levels.

Your ability modifiers are the bonus (or minus) you get depending on your ability scores in strength, dexterity, intelligence etc. They are added to every ability/skill check you make.

To be 100% clear two first level Rogues, Vince and Howard, are walking across a tightrope above a yawning precipice. They both have dexterity 16 giving them an ability modifier of +3 each. But furthermore Vince has the acrobatics proficiency, meaning he can add a further +2 to his roll to make a total modifier of +5. Whilst Howard, who isn’t proficient, will have to hope +3 is all he requires!

skills and proficiencies

I’ll be fine with just my ability modifier Vince

This rule works pretty well for skills that most people could reasonably attempt at least, like climbing and jumping (athletics), riding a horse (animal handling), foraging for food (survival) or telling an outrageous lie whilst looking someone right in the eye (deception)… however for me it falls down when we talk about more technical skills, or ones that require specialist knowledge.

For that reason, I’ve created this small rules fix which declares several of the D&D skills as “technical skills / proficiencies”. When attempting to use these skills non-proficient characters not only don’t add their proficiency bonus but they attempt any checks at disadvantage.

Hipsters & Dragons list of “Technical Skills”

  • Arcana
  • Religion
  • Medicine
  • Thieves Toolkit
  • Disguise Kit
  • Poison Kit

All of these skills require a degree of specialist training and knowledge that, for me, need to be reflected in terms of probability when a non-proficient character uses them, and which I do by imposing disadvantage. The average fighter is not going to have a clue about arcane or religious rituals, not does he have the anatomical knowledge or herbal lore to have any realistic chance of performing any healing (medicine) on anyone other than bandaging wounds. (In fact I think it would be justified under many circumstances if the DM gives a non proficient no chance at all in tests of these skills). I will also place on the list:

  • Performance

With the caveat that non proficient characters can still have a decent bash at singing, storytelling or delivering a great speech… however they can’t just pick up a harp at a royal wedding and expect to impress the princess. (Most players will instinctively know this and roleplay accordingly anyhow… but hey show them this post if they disagree!).

Finally I will add that within the non-technical skills, as a DM I would still consider giving disadvantage to non proficient players for some more specialist skill tests. In fact my tightrope example above is a good one in this regard… whilst it makes sense that every character can attempt to forward roll over a tavern table without proficiency in acrobatics, walking a tightrope is a very technical skill, so a tough-but-fair DM (my favourite type) could easily justify imposing disdvantage. Similarly if you attempt to Crocodile Dundee a Buffalo and you’re not proficient in animal handling, I’m going to give you disadvantage (on top of a very high Difficulty Class… p.174 Player’s Handbook).

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