Hipsters & Dragons

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

Dodge & Disengage: Do They Need Tweaking?

Few players at my table ever remember to use the Disengage and Dodge actions, which is probably why it’s taken me about four years to realise they are way too powerful. Or, at the very least, they are immersion breaking.

I can get on board with someone managing to extricate themselves from a fight by taking the Disengage action… but the fact that they can then ‘move around the board’ with impunity doesn’t make any sense to me. A rogue could end up running down a 60 foot corridor of bloodthirsty orcs without them laying a single axe on her fleet frame. Indeed, in RAW, the orcs wouldn’t even try swinging, presumably too bedazzled by her Usain Bolt-esque afterburners.

Don’t worry chaps… we’ll Disengage and make a run for it! (William Barnes Wollen).

Dodge is less problematic, but doesn’t make sense in certain situations… for example when you’re surrounded by a horde of rampaging gnolls, harrying you from all angles. Or you’ve got a dozen archers all taking aim. When the character is an unarmed, and unarmored wizard, it’s hard to visualise how they would be able to go about defending themselves so effectively – imposing disadvantage on ALL attacks. Surely there’s a limit on how many attacks one can defend oneself in a single round? (Perhaps if 5th edition had facing rules, that would help determine which attacks could be seen or not, which in turn would help mitigate the problem… but it doesn’t).

Yep, as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m going to stick my oar in 5th edition’s lovely elegant design and give it a good whirl.

Disengage: Hipster Remix

When you take the Disengage action you can select a number of creatures equal to your Dexterity modifier (min. 1). Your movement doesn’t provoke opportunity attacks from those creatures for the rest of the turn.

RAW version here.

Dodge: Hipster Remix

When you take the Dodge action, you focus entirely on avoiding attacks. Until the start of your next turn, you can impose disadvantage on a certain number of attack rolls made against you, provided that you can see the attacker in each case. That number equals your AC minus 10, or 2, whichever is higher. Additionally, you make Dexterity saving throws with advantage. You lose these benefits if you are incapacitated or if your speed drops to 0.

RAW version here.

So what do you think? Pretty reasonable, no? In most cases PCs won’t notice a downgrade in these abilities… but it will make the tight spots they occasionally find themselves in realistically tighter. And if they do end up dead, you can always send them my apologies.

As always, please share your thoughts in the comments…

15 Things I Love About 5th Edition…

The other day someone in the comments section accused me of hating 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. 🤔

At first I was taken back… after all I started a roleplaying blog that talks exclusively (so far at least!) about 5e D&D, not to mention the fact that I dedicate a considerable amount of my free to time to playing and DMing, as well as creating new products for the DMs Guild.

On the other hand, I could see their point. Every other post I write on this blog is an attempt to fix something I don’t like much about the game.

5th time is a charm… (artwork in this post belongs to Wizards of the Coast).

At any rate, the comment got me thinking… maybe it’s time I wrote a post celebrating, what I consider to be, the best aspects of 5e: a selection of the mechanics, as well as some of the maxims, that have combined to make this my favourite edition of the game, and – from a wider perspective – have helped propel the brand to new heights of success.

So without further ado, here are 15 reasons why 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons kicks ass….

1. The Advantage of Advantage

Who doesn’t love the advantage mechanic? It’s so simple and ‘elegant’ (to use a 5e design buzzword), removing the need for a bunch of modifiers and recalibration of DCs.

Instead of getting some +2 bonus to hit a prone target, and then remembering that they shouldn’t get their Dexterity modifier applied to their AC any more, and setting up a 10 minute calculation about what the final number you need to hit is, with the advantage mechanic you can simply keep all your usual modifiers but roll twice and take the highest.

At first I was concerned that nuances of probability would be lost, but I quickly realised… it just works. Plus you get to roll two dice instead of one!
Praise be to J.C.!

Two dice are better than one…

2. Bigging Up Backgrounds

I’ve seen some people state that they don’t like the backgrounds in the Player’s Handbook…. for me they might just be the best thing in there! Or at least the best thing that I wasn’t expecting. Every background is a protein shake injection to my creative muscles when it comes to fashioning character concepts. Just reading the Personality Trait, Ideal, Bond and Flaw tables of a single background type is usually enough to set my brain into overdrive churning out engaging personalities ready to be fleshed out with a few stats and a brief back story of their childhood misery.

More than anything else in the edition though, backgrounds are symptomatic of 5e’s focus on storytelling, something which has elevated my experiences at the table from two dimensional quest completion, focusing on a strategic use of resources, into a more well-rounded game with plenty of social interaction, character development and rich, personal storylines that take place beyond the ‘you must save the world’ mission.

I might talk some more about this in the future!

Plenty to get the creative juices flowing…

3. In Commendation of Concentration

Concentration is a great device for limiting the power of certain spells and ensuring spellcasters can’t lockdown battles with a never-ending barrage of control spells like entangle, hold person, slow etc. As an added bonus it encourages smarter monsters and NPCs to target spellcasters, stopping them from hanging around at the back with impunity, the cheeky buggers.

It also adds some ‘fun’ implications of using certain spells like fly. Are you willing to risk being 200 feet in the air when you lose concentration on that one!?

4. In Tune With Attunement

Everyone loves magic items, but some DMs and players have a natural inclination towards spamming their adventures with game-changing weapons and artefacts that threaten to overshadow the powers of the players themselves. Setting a sensible limit on the number of powerful items one player can use at a time (three in case you’re wondering), is common sense as far as I’m concerned.

No more spamming magic items

5. The Extra Traction of a Bonus Action

Who doesn’t want a second opportunity to get sh*t done?

Here’s a little more on maximising those precious moments…

6. The Satisfaction of a Quick Reaction

I can go, and it’s not even my turn? Hand me that d20….

7. The Simplicity of Skill Proficiencies

When I first read the Player’s Handbook I was a bit underwhelmed by the paucity of choice in the skills proficiencies department, but I now see it as a great boon of the game. There are very few times when the game requires a test of skill or knowledge that isn’t covered by the 18 skills in the game, and if you do like to mix things up a bit try my new favourite technique… the cross over check, where you pair a skill with a different ability to usual. Such as a Strength (Acrobatics) check, to keep your balance in a gale force wind, or a Dexterity (Athletics) check to scramble at speed through a obstacle-strewn marketplace.

The fact that anyone, proficient or otherwise, can clatter a d20 over the table for virtually any check, no matter how niche, can rile sticklers for realism who (understandably) hate seeing the barbarian’s knowledge of Arcana outdo the wizard’s… in which case check my post right here for some solutions.

A simple skills system that does the trick

8. The Flexibility of Feats

While the plethora of archetypes and options offer players plenty of choice (choice that is ever expanding thanks to the proliferation of supplements and unearthed arcana that Wizards of the Coasts continue to pump out, not to mention the combined efforts of the D&D play’n’publishing community on the Dungeon Master’s Guild), feats do a wonderful job of filling in the gaps, allowing players to personalise their PCs and make them more powerful with clever combinations of complimentary features. The fact that you can get a feat off the bat, by selecting the human variant option as your chosen race is all the better.

Having fun with feats…

9. The Consistency of Conditions

I think it was a really smart idea by the designers to group together a bunch of common conditions and state clearly the mechanical implications of each at the back of the Player’s Handbook. Pretty soon players and DMs know what to expect from certain effects, and spells needn’t go into detail about the specific implications of being entangled by the grim tendrils of evards black tentacles or what it means to be blinded by a sunbeam.

Grappling with conditions is easy in 5e

10. Exhaustive Possibilities

Hit points probably remain the most absurd feature of Dungeons & Dragons… the idea that you are (almost) 10 times harder to kill at 10th level than 1st, with the same weapon, has never made sense and never will, even if the D&D designers and playing community have come up with some creative thought processes to explain away the absurdity (increased luck, skill, divine favour etc.!). Nor does it make sense that you can perform 100% at 1 hit point, just as if at full hit points, or that you can recover from everything except death by taking a 60 minute siesta (for my variant healing rules head here).

Whatever you think about hit points though, they aren’t going anywhere soon, and for a heroic fantasy game at least they work.

Nonetheless exhaustion comes in and offers something new to D&D. A way of damaging characters that is separate to the hit points system, and which brings on a succession of penalties that eventually lead to death – no matter how many HP you have!

In fact, it hardly comes into play, in RAW (Rules As Written)! Off the top of my head I can only thing of extreme cold and heat, sleep deprivation and perhaps drowning as ‘official’ ways to gain levels of exhaustion in 5th edition… although I think there might be a couple of spells and monster features that may impose it too.

You just failed your saving throw against Extreme Cold

But that’s fine… I see exhaustion more as a mechanic for DMs to play with, and I think one of the best homebrew rules we’ve instigated (albeit inconsistently) in my group is that being reduced to 0 hit points lumbers you with a level of exhaustion (or even two). One of our DMs also rewrote the lingering injuries table in the DMG adding levels of exhaustion to several of the other effects, and giving serious injuries a bigger impact.

In conclusion, if you like a little bit more realism in your game, then the exhaustion mechanic gives you something very handy to play around with. (Note: if you do end up dishing out multiple levels of exhaustion fairly readily, then I would advise having a short rest reduce one level and a long rest reduce two… otherwise your players will get sick of being underpowered the whole time).

11. Mager Differences

The last time I played D&D regularly, prior to picking it up again in 2016, was in the 90s, when I played 2nd edition. In those days arcane spellcasters were limited to the mage and the illusionist. Picking up the 5th edition Player’s Handbook and discovering three well-defined class concepts in the form of the sorcerer, warlock and wizard was a great improvement for the game. Between them you can play a D&D version of pretty much any magic user you’ve read or watched about in fantasy literature, film and television, whether you prefer the scholarly wizard of old, a chosen one imbued with incredible powers, or a creepy dude who’s done a dodgy deal in exchange for some supernatural skills.

Every flavour of magic user…

12. Room for Manoeuvres

I love a martial character, but sometimes combat can turn into a rather dull slogfest, devoid of meaningful choices. The battlemaster’s manoeuvres go a long way to solving this problem, by offering plenty of extra scope to what a fighter can do in battle, including introducing possibilities that standard rules have always found it hard to account for… like disarming your enemy.

My only gripe is that only a battlemaster can access them, except via the Martial Adept feat, which is a little underwhelming (maybe two d4 superiority dice, instead of one d6 would fix it?).

Given that spellcasters are so powerful (not to mention versatile) in 5e, I’m tempted to give every non-caster in the party the Martial Adept feat as a freebie (including any battlemasters) in my next campaign.

13. A Multiclass Act

My memories of multiclassing was that it always introduced a host of broken options, and that annoying powergamers would constantly abuse the system to create spammy, nonsensical characters in order to ‘win D&D’.

From the odd Facebook or Reddit thread that I stumble upon, I understand that’s still possible, but in my experience so far it’s not really obvious and easy to do… many classes’ best features are held back to 2nd level, and this simple design trick means that you’re often better off just heading further up the ladder you’re already on, than being tempted to switch paths for the sake of picking up the powers of another class.

The only somewhat spammy use of multiclassing I’ve seen on my table was when a druid dipped into barbarian to get the rage ability. Suddenly D&D’s already ridiculously tanky tank, just got a lot tankier….

14. Digging Diversity

Ok, I’m just about done with the mechanics I like in 5e, but I think it’s time to pay respect to a more general change of tone within the game. Back in the 90s it seemed like there was only one demographic that played D&D… I don’t think I need to tell you who they were!

I seem to remember Strength penalties for playing a female character (to be fair, I believe they were offset with a bonus to Wisdom or Constitution, but in any case it was an awkward division), the heroes pretty much all had fair skin, and gay people didn’t exist. Nowadays, however, the world of D&D almost seems more politically correct than the real world, with plenty of powerful female NPCs, artwork that reflects different ethnicities and skin tones, openly gay characters and even some transgender NPCs appearing in official tomes.

We know there are prejudices in the real world, but they don’t serve the world of Dungeons & Dragons, and it’s great to see a concerted effort by the brand owners to be more inclusive. Maybe they haven’t got it right every time, but the proof is in plain view… you can find D&D live play streams of groups of every demographic, from all black or ethnic minority casts to all queer ones. Meanwhile, if I wasn’t too old for crushes, then I’d definitely have a crush on every member of this all female D&D group (an inconceivable demographic not so long ago!). Their voice acting is easily on a par with the famous cast of Critical Role, and the DM is fantastic, so put them on your watch list!

Apart from anything else, the ever-expanding appeal of the game, and the deconstruction of some of the negative stereotypes around it, means I feel less and less that I have to apologise in public for being so addicted to this incredibly geeky, hour-sapping pastime.

15. Community Content(ment)

For various reasons – namely the playability of the new edition, the advancement of technology, a resurgent interest in fantasy genre spearheaded by Game of Thrones, the rise of geek culture – 5th edition D&D is also the beneficiary of an ever-expanding universe of additional, community-made content that is growing up beside it.

From live streams that serve as either as entertainment or inspiration (see my post on learning from Matt Mercer), and ‘how to’ videos by the likes of Matt Colville and Dungeon Dudes to the black hole of adventures and lore that is the DM’s Guild, you could spend every hour of every day for the rest of your life immersed in D&D content and you wouldn’t run out of things to watch or read.

It can actually be a little intimidating to think about much you haven’t read, but on the other hand the demand for Dungeons & Dragons content is driving a host of new opportunities for lovers of the game, and the ultimate dream of being paid to either play or write about D&D has never been more attainable.

It’s Your Turn….

What aspects of 5e D&D do you like most? Be they specific mechanics, design philosophies, supplements, I’m intrigued to hear your opinion… (this way 👇 to the comments!).

Not The Dreaded DC 15…

On page 174 of the Player’s Handbook there’s a table of Difficulty Classes for ability checks that goes a little something like this…

DIFFICULTY CLASSES (PLAYER’S HANDBOOK)
Task DifficultyDC
Very easy5
Easy10
Medium15
Hard20
Very hard25
Nearly impossible30

As you can see, to succeed on a Medium difficulty skill check you need to roll a 15.

What’s my problem with that? It’s way too difficult, that’s what!

Without modifiers you only have a 30% chance of succeeding at something that is supposed to represent an averagely difficult task. But even with a +3 modifier of someone incredibly naturally gifted at this type of challenge (ie. someone with a score of 16 in Strength, Dexterity, Wisdom etc.), and a +2 proficiency modifier for someone with relevant skill and training, you will still need to roll a 10 to succeed at this ‘average’ task.

A trained and talented hero has a 45% chance of failing at a Medium difficult task in their greatest area of strength

This means a trained and talented hero has a 45% chance of failing at a Medium difficult task in their greatest area of strength (at least until level 4… although the picture hardly changes greatly, even towards mid and high tiers).

That really bugs me.

15 is pretty much the standard DC baked into any published 5e D&D adventure and also the one that DMs give out for any task when improvising on the fly… of course they do. The rules pretty much tell them to.

Low fence jump…. shall we say DC 15?

It works well enough when it’s a group check that only one PC has to succeed at, such as a Perception check, but it can make getting even seemingly basic tasks done almost impossible when PCs are acting alone.

I’ve endured countless irritating times at the table when my insanely agile rogue can’t walk across a simple log bridge without taking a swim in the raging river below…

I’ve endured countless irritating times at the table when my insanely agile rogue can’t walk across a simple log bridge without taking a swim in the raging river below, or my beefy barbarian can’t climb a rope, or fails to break down a door. Some of these challenges are ones I’d fancy my undextrous, unbeefy self to be able to do in real life! (Not break down a door… that is really tough, as I once had the misfortune to find out!).

The picture gets far worse the minute you need to succeed in two or more tasks. A stealthy barbarian that needs to climb up a wall (DC 15 with +5 modifier), then sneak past a guard (DC 15 with +4), then lower a drawbridge (DC 15 with +5) would have only a 15% percent chance of pulling off their mission. With those odds maybe he should just go back home!

And before you start writing your comment, I actually love failing in D&D. It’s fun, dramatic and often very funny.

And yes, I do also understand the narrative power of set backs, and the experienced and talented DMs I am lucky enough to play with often offer ‘get out’ checks, or other chances to deal with failed rolls that often improve the story. And that’s great.

But nonetheless I want my heroes to be able to succeed at the things they’re great at 8 or 9 times out of 10… not barely more than 50 percent of the time. And that way, the times they do f@ck up will be memorable, and not annoyingly frequent… almost to the point of being predictable.

(And let’s not forget, there’s still ALL the things that heroes are crap at for them to fail at, without having to see them mess up the things they’re supposedly good at quite so often).

Can We Get Some Love for DC 10?

Anyway mild-tempered rant over. The point of this post is to encourage the dungeon delving, dragon-slaying world that DC 10 should be the new DC 15, and that their game will make more sense for it.

I feel labelling DC 10 as ‘easy’ in the Player’s Handbook has been bad branding for this unloved check point, which in most cases will still deliver a solid 20-50% failure rate.

And let me say that there’s nothing wrong with DCs 11-14 either (or 6-19 for that matter), if it means giving a PC a few extra percent chance to succeed where it makes sense to do so.

I am also a big fan of DC 12 as another “go-to” Difficulty Class. The way I see it, both DCs 10 and 12 offer a real chance of failure on any given check, without loading the odds unnecessarily against the hero.

I’ll sign off with a tweaked Difficulty Class table that I hope will encourage DMs to think about DCs a little differently…

DIFFICULTY CLASSES (HIPSTER’S REMIX)
Task DifficultyDC
Very Easy5
Easy8
Medium10
Tricky12
Hard15
Very hard20
Incredibly hard25
Why bother?30

So readers… are you feeling me? Or not really… leave a (respectful) reply in the comments!

Drinking a Healing Potion in Combat (New Rule)

I was watching this video, by the excellent Dungeon Dudes, when I realised there is an issue on my table that hasn’t been resolved satisfactorily to my mind. That of drinking a healing potion in combat.

The official rules state that drinking a healing potion requires an action. But when you consider that this means allowing whatever creature you’re fighting a free round in which to hit you, the odds are that you are actually going to take more damage in the round you drink the potion than you receive from drinking from it. (Even if, as the Dudes suggest, you use the maximum dice rolls possible to determine number of hit points recovered per potion… although this will certainly help even the odds quite a bit!).

Overall, in any situation where the monster is likely to target you with their next attacks, it’s almost always a disastrous strategy to use an action in combat to drink a healing potion.

Of course you could try retreating, to drink the potion in safety, but that assumes you have allies who are able to prevent the monster pursuing you: and even then the monster will get one free opportunity attack on you, making this ploy almost as risky as drinking it under their nose.

Kill your enemies with a cough and a handshake.

I’m not surprised that some DMs (including one of the three in my group) rule that drinking a potion only requires a bonus action, to offset this problem. Unfortunately for me, that feels way too generous mechanically (there’s almost no cost to doing it), and is also almost impossible to justify in a narrative sense. Even assuming the potion is kept close at hand, perhaps on a belt or necklace (and not at the bottom of a backpack), it still has to be retrieved, uncorked and drank. That seems too intricate an activity to require a mere bonus action, and definitely not something you could combine with casting a spell for example.

Is there a middle ground here? When stopping to drink a potion still has a cost to your own offensive potential, and still carries a risk, but where that risk has a decent chance of paying off.

Introducing…

HIPSTER RULE FIX: DODGE & DRINK

Simply put, I would house rule that when you use an action to drink a potion in combat, you can choose to use all of your other combined actions (bonus action, move, free action and reaction) to take the Dodge action.

The Dodge action (p.192, PH), you probably don’t need reminding, imposes disadvantage on all attack rolls against you (by attackers that you can see at least).

For me this rule neatly achieves what I want it to. It makes drinking a potion in combat a viability, by reducing the odds of taking damage in the round you’re trying to heal up in, without needing to introduce the “videogamey” feel of on-the-go power ups at the speed of a bonus action. And while Dodge is quite a powerful benefit to give the PC, the fact that they can’t use their movement to retreat to safety at the same time, or get an opportunity attack, feels about right.

Narratively I feel it’s easy enough to justify. The fighter pulls out a potion, flicks out the cork and chugs it down, at the same time as they shimmy lightly on their feet and keep their longsword at full arm’s length to prevent their opponent from getting close, maybe throwing in a feint or two for good measure. There’s no time for the fighter to attack, and the opponent has a free pass to move away, but the savvy soldier is able to use their weapon as a deterrent, keeping the pointy end between them and danger.

So there you go! As always, let me know what you think…

Circle of the Moon Druid. The Unlikely Tank.

One thing I like about 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, as opposed to the 1st and 2nd edition D&D of my youth, is how the designers have broadened the depiction of classic classes to make them far more interesting. A paladin is longer bound to be a pompous holy warrior, clerics can be much more than bland skeleton-turning healers, and you don’t have to dress in a white frock, sickling mistletoe if you want to play a druid.

Hands up if you hate mistletoe!

The fresh, original artwork of the Player’s Handbook and its evocative class description, with intriguing background prompts, pushes you towards a character concept that feels far broader than the frail, old, Stonehenge worshipper you might have played in the late 1980s. And while this evolution is to be applauded, one thing I never expected was for the druid class to become the party’s official ‘tank’.

All the druid needed was a sexy makeover! (Art by Wizards of the Coast).

If you’ve been playing D&D for longer than half an hour, you probably know by now that tank is the phrase players use to describe the member(s) of their party who fight on the front line and soak up enemy hits, enabling more delicate rogues, rangers and wizards to contribute to the fight from a safe distance.

With their disdain of metallic armour and spells like call lightning (a great damage dealer… which gets a bit boring!), the druid was traditionally filed very much under ‘squishy, ranged damage dealer’ in early editions of the game, but that’s all changed dramatically with the introduction of Wild Shape.

…the druid was traditionally filed very much under ‘squishy, ranged damage dealer’ in early editions of the game, but that’s all changed dramatically with the introduction of Wild Shape.

In 5th edition, Circle of the Moon druids can turn into a creature with many more hit points than itself twice in between rests, and deplete all of those hit points, before changing back to its normal form unharmed.

Cool…. but mind-bogglingly imbalanced.

I’m not going to crunch the numbers too much on this, but a level two Circle of the Moon druid, who might naturally have 17 hit points, could easily access 222 extra hit points during the course of an adventuring day, by Wild Shaping six times into a dire wolf with 37 hit points (and that based on a day with just two short rests).

Just let that sink in… and then ask: what the actual fuck!?

That blows any comparable abilities out of the material plane of existence. A fighter’s (the traditional tank!) Second Wind feature, used three times at 2nd level, would get you around 21 extra hp. 😱

And that’s just the hit points.

Erm, should you really be setting fire to that tree?

If I told you I was homebrewing a class that, on top of cleric-level spellcasting abilities, could also climb walls at 2nd level, breathe underwater at 4th level, fly at 8th level, that could shrink to the size of a mouse almost at will, gain darkvision when it wanted, gain advantage on perception rolls, move at 50ft a round, etc. etc. you would think… “this guy is creating the most broken class of all time!” But these are all the added bonuses a druid can take advantage of, in addition to the obscene truckloads of temporary hit points it gains as a result of the Wild Shape ability.

Much as I love the concept, fun and flavour of Wild Shape, this is simply overpowered and unbalancing, especially in the lower levels of the game… (where, incidentally, I play most of my D&D).

One character shouldn’t be 10 times or more harder to kill than the other members of the adventuring party, especially not when you consider how many other powers it picks up by virtue of the same ability.

If like me you believe Wild Shape needs a rethink, let’s consider what we can do to change it.

Wild Shape Fix Number 1

I can’t really understand why the designers pressed the nuclear option when it came to making Circle of the Moon so much tankier than the Circle of the Land. A straight forward fix might be to create a new table that reflects the Circle of Moon’s specialisation, without going completely overboard.

LevelMax CR (C/Land)Max CR (C/Moon)Max CR (C/Moon in RAW)
2nd1/41/21
4th1/211
8th122 (from 6th level)
10th133 (from 9th)
12th144
14th254
16th265 (from 15th)
18th276
20th286

Design Notes: In my experience (so far), the real unbalancing aspect of Wild Shape for Circle of the Moon druids is the excess of hit points at lower levels that makes them virtually unkillable in comparison with their peers, so that’s what I’ve chipped away at in this revised table. While I’ve actually made the Wild Shape better at higher levels, so at 20th level you can turn into a T-Rex… (let’s face it, who doesn’t want to do that at some time in their D&D career!). Plus I’ve thrown Circle of the Land druids a bone, by letting them access CR 2 creatures from 14th level onwards. This table sits better for me, because now the druid has a steadier rate of progression, and I believe players will enjoy more turning into a dire wolf at 4th level if they were restricted to just a normal wolf at 2nd and 3rd level. (At least they will if they hadn’t already read the Player’s Handbook).

Additional Restriction: On further thought, I would add another restriction that will really tidy up this class option for me. I would state that the total sum of the Challenge Ratings of the beasts which the druid Wild Shapes into between long rests cannot exceed the druid’s level. In other words a level 4 druid can transform into four CR 1 creatures during a day, or two CR 1 creatures and four CR 1/2 creatures, etc. etc. I like this because it is almost bound to bring more variety and imagination into play, and presents some tough choices for the PC. This ruling also tidies up the extremely problematic 20th level Circle of the Moon ability of unlimited Wild Shapes (ie. unlimited hit points!). Using my rule, the 20th level druid can still Wild Shape into near unlimited small creatures (assuming such beasts have CR 1/8 that would make 160 transformations, so more than enough!), but they can only transform into the mighty T-Rex twice a day (after which they still have some space for other transformations).

Just a couple of druids hanging out…

Wild Shape Fix Number 2

If you are nervous about changing the rules (go on try it!), or your players get the hump at ‘being nerfed’ (note: unless something is seriously damaging play, I recommend only introducing rules changes BEFORE a new campaign starts, not in the middle of one!), then there’s a way to deal with Wild Shape staring up at you from the hallowed pages of the Player’s Handbook itself.

“Starting at 2nd level, you can use your action to magically assume the shape of a beast that you have seen before.” (p.66).

To save a lot of hassle arguing over what a character has seen in their long life of adventuring, before the campaign started, I would introduce a simple mechanic. When a player wishes to transform into a beast of CR 1 or over they must succeed on an Nature check to see if they happened to have seen it or not on their travels. I would set the DC as 15 for CR1, DC 20 for CR2, DC 25 for CR3 and DC 30 for CR4 and above. Obviously you can use common sense a bit to adjust them, if the creature is particularly common etc. If the druid passes the check, obviously they don’t have to make it again to transform into the same beast at a later date. If they fail the check, they have not seen the beast in question and cannot transform into said animal unless they encounter it within your adventure, or else go on a beast hunt in their down time. (For a beast hunt, let them choose the creature they wish to observe, and then set a DC for a Survival check based on them spending one week tracking it down in its natural habitat).

(I’ve just realised there is also something about this on p.24 of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. A list of tables of beasts by terrain type, that you can tie in with your druid’s background to make assumptions about what creatures they might have observed in the wilderness. Note: I like the idea that a druid needs to observe, not just see a beast).

Wild Shape Fix Number 3

Without wanting to get into that timeless old debate about ‘realism in fantasy’ (bangs head on desk!), my imagining of Wild Shape dictates that the druid becomes the creature it transforms into. The fact that said creature can be clawed, chopped, mauled and fireballed to death, and then transform back into a fully fit druid, without a scratch on them, is really immersion breaking for me.

One of the best homebrew rules that another DM in our group introduced onto our table, was that being reduced to 0 hit points gives you two levels of exhaustion. Suddenly dying means something again, and that silly D&D farce of lying broken and unconscious in one round followed by springing up and running full speed into the fray in the next round, having received some healing, was done away with. Now if you went down, if you did manage to get healed, you were operating at half speed with disadvantage on ability checks. Which makes sense (or at least is some small nod to realism).

I would be sorely tempted to introduce something similar for when druids are knocked out of Wild Shape. Two levels might be too harsh, but one level of exhaustion would mean there were consequences for dying in beast form, and make the whole feature feel a lot less like a temporary hit point gimmick and more like a transformation ability that the druid lives through. This would naturally limit how often the druid could take advantage of Wild Shape for combat purposes, no matter how many short rests they got in the day… and that for me would be a good thing.

Conclusion

Overall I’m glad there’s a new tank in town (sometimes it feels like D&D is turning into a game where most classes want to fight from the sidelines rather than actually engage the enemy, which feels somehow very anti-heroic to me), and Wild Shape is such a fun ability with so much creative potential – but I do feel the designers lost their sense of proportion on this one.

Hopefully using one, or even all, of the fixes that I’ve proposed might help certain gaming tables balance this ability and – if the changes are embraced, rather than cried at – I even believe these changes might actually provoke more fun and creativity, by forcing players to have more strategies and more uses for Wild Shape.

As always, feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments. (Note: I publish > 95% of comments, but if you’re particularly obnoxious I may choose to press delete instead!).

More Stuff

Do you, like me, ever get a strong feeling of apathy when choosing your PC’s weapons? There’s essentially no difference between a mace and a spear, or a shortsword and a scimitar, a longsword and a flail, etc. etc, despite these all being very different weapons… well check out my new 5e melee weapon properties for a touch more variety, realism and crunch in combat.

Make Weapons Great Again: New 5e Weapon Properties

Ever felt frustrated that your choice of weapon means next to nothing in 5th edition Dungeon & Dragons?

There’s literally no mechanical difference between wielding a battleaxe or a longsword for example, and only nominal differences between handaxes, maces, spears, quarterstaffs, shortswords and scimitars – despite how different those weapons are in real life.

Longsword, battleaxe, warpick… what difference does it make!?

In many cases weapons have zero advantages over their closest counterparts… why wield a greataxe, when a greatsword does more damage? Or a maul come to think of it.  Mechanically, there’s almost nothing to reflect the martial advantages (and disadvantages) of different types of weapons, except their damage die.

Overall I feel like a potentially fun strategical choice has been taken away from players, by the rather too simplistic weapons table in the Player’s Handbook.

Overall I feel like a potentially fun strategical choice (what weapons to bring with you on an adventure) has been taken away from players, by the rather too simplistic weapons table in the Player’s Handbook.

At least for my taste. (I’m sure there many who will defend its simplicity… but hey, this post is not for those guys and girls! So no need to leave an angry comment about how I’m ruining D&D 😉 ).

For well over a year now, I’ve been thinking about how to add a dash of extra dynamism in the weapons department, in a simple and playable way.

The result of much thought, and a bit of behind the scene sums, is a new product called Slash, Stab, Hack, Repeat – which I’ve just released on The DM’s Guild, priced as “Pay What You Want”. (In other words, free, although I’ll be grateful if you grease my palm with a dollar or two if you think they’ll add something significant to your table…).

Get 19 new weapons properties for your game!

In Slash, Stab, Hack, Repeat!, I’ve created new rules for weapons that deal bludgeoning and piercing damage, as well as several new properties that bring a bit of extra flavour and mechanical crunch to many of the weapons in the Player’s Handbook.

I’ve also suggested two new rules regarding opportunity attacks, the first of which is fun, the second of which is designed to bring a bit of extra realism to combat (and helps balance the new ‘long’ property I’ve proposed in the same product).

My goals with the product were to:

  • Give players meaningful choices to make regarding which weapons they wield
  • To introduce a touch more realism to combat (or ‘fantasy realism’ as I like to call it… realism based on our perception of fantasy novels, TV and film!)
  • Keep things balanced and fast paced

I’m going to copy and paste the bulk of the content here, so you can see the new properties and rules variants. But you should download the product to see the revised Hipsters & Dragons Weapon Table, and which weapons have which new properties.

Slash, Stab, Hack, Repeat!

Melee and ranged weapons that deal bludgeoning or piercing damage enjoy the following benefits:

Bludgeoning weapons

When attacking with a melee weapon that deals bludgeoning damage, if you miss by 1, you hit instead, dealing half the normal damage to the target. You cannot deal sneak attack damage on the hit.

Piercing weapons

Weapons that deal piercing damage are capable of particularly grievous wounds, impaling their victims and rupturing vital organs. When you score a critical hit roll a d6. On a 4, 5 or 6, triple the weapon’s damage dice instead of doubling them.

 New Weapon Properties

A list of new weapon properties.

Charge.  This weapon can be used to deal lethal damage on a charge. If you move at least 20 feet in a straight line before engaging an opponent, you may choose to take a -4 modifier on your first attack roll against that creature. If you hit with that attack, you roll an additional damage die, equal to that of the weapon’s usual damage die.

Handy. You have advantage on attack rolls against a creature you are grappling, as well as against creatures that are grappling you.

Long. While you are wielding a long weapon, any creature that is not wielding a long weapon (or natural weapon of 10 feet reach) provokes an opportunity attack from you when they enter your reach. If you have the Polearm Master feat, you gain advantage on this roll. You have disadvantage to hit an opponent that is grappling you, or grappled by you, when you attack with a long weapon.

Long (defence). Weapons with the long (defence) property have the same benefits and disadvantages of those with the long property, but with one additional benefit. If you hit a creature with an opportunity attack as they enter your reach, you reduce their speed to zero.

Parry. When you are wielding a weapon with the parry property and a creature you can see hits you with a melee attack, you can use your reaction to add 1 to your AC for that attack, potentially causing the attack to miss you. You must have a Dexterity score of 13 or higher to take advantage of this feature, which can be used in conjunction with the Defensive Duelist feat.

Parry (versatile). A weapon with the parry (versatile) property may be used to parry normally with one hand (see above), or using two hands, in which case the wielder may add 2 to their AC.

Riposte. The speed of this weapon allows you to turn defence into attack. Whenever using the parry property of your weapon causes an attack to miss you, as part of the same reaction you make make a retaliatory melee attack, using your Dexterity modifier for the attack and damage rolls.

Savage. Savage weapons combine speed, weight and penetration, enabling them to deal decisive blows in combat. When you roll a 19 on an attack roll, roll an additional d6. If you roll the number given in parentheses next to the weapon, or higher, you score a critical hit. If the weapon has the versatile property reduce the number in the parentheses by 1, when it is wielded in two hands. If there is no number in parentheses, no need to roll a d6, a 19 is an automatic critical hit.

Shield-wrap. You gain a +1 to attack rolls against opponents wielding a shield.

Short. See special (dagger dual wield), below.

Smash. Weapons with the smash property offer their wielders a bonus to Strength (Athletics) checks to knock down wooden doors. The bonus is +2 for one-handed weapons, and +5 for both two-handed weapons and versatile weapons used with two hands.

Sneaky. This weapon is deadly against a distracted foe. When you deal sneak attack damage you may reroll any 1s on the damage dice, taking the new roll instead.

Spear. This multi-purpose weapon possesses the benefits of the spear’s charge and long properties. Attacks using these properties deal 1d8 piercing damage, instead of the weapon’s usual damage.

Special (bludgeoning). When you miss by 1 with this weapon, you deal half damage instead. Additionally, you may choose to deal bludgeoning damage against creatures with vulnerability to this damage type.

Special (dagger dual wield). You may dual wield with this weapon, providing your second weapon has the short property.

Two-handed (revised). When you score a critical hit with a two-handed weapon (or versatile weapon used with two hands) you may double your Strength damage modifier, as well as the damage dice.

Unwieldy. This weapon is impractical to use in a skirmish. You have disadvantage to hit creatures at close range, and your speed is halved. If mounted, your mount’s speed is not affected. Any one-handed weapon with the unwieldy quality needs to be used two-handed when not mounted.

My revised Weapons table, with new properties. Buy here.

Unarmed Strikes (Monks)

A monk’s unarmed strikes have the parry and riposte properties. However a monk cannot use the parry property against certain weapons, such as swords, unless they invest in some funky arm guards!

Opportunity Attacks (Rules Variants)

– Opportunity attacks made with thrown weapons have advantage, provided the attacker is already carrying the weapon (i.e. doesn’t have to draw it).

– Whenever you make an opportunity attack against a creature, you provoke an opportunity attack from all other hostile creatures within reach of you.

Design Notes

The latter of these two rules is designed to prevent outnumbered foes making opportunity attacks with impunity. Effectively it allows creatures to cover an ally’s retreat via numerical advantage. It also means creatures with long weapons, already engaged in combat, pay a price to attack new combatants as they enter their reach. (Alternatively you could rule that only creatures not engaged in combat can take advantage of the opportunity attacks granted by the long property / Polearm Master feat).

The former offers a cool advantage to those carrying throwable weapons, and reflects the ease of aiming at an unguarded rear, without having to get close enough to strike with a melee attack.

Critical Misses

Some while ago I gave critical misses a similar treatment, so if you want to grab my Fumbles Tables from the DMs Guild, that’s also a Pay What You Want product… I’ve been using them for a while and I think they work pretty well. Reviews ain’t bad either.

Magical Weapons

Like yourself some arcane booty? Here are ten free magical weapons for your table… for another hundred or so, plus a funky ‘Magic Weapon Generator’ with 1000s of combinations of properties check out Esquiel’s Guide to Magic Weapons.

How To Run a Chase in 5e D&D…. Step by Step Rules!

Is it just me, or do chases not really work in 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons?

Mapping a chase out as an extension of combat quickly turns into a farce, as either the fleeing party is faster and the pursuer has zero chance of catching up, or the pursuer is the same speed or faster, leading to them wearing down their quarry with a tedious series of opportunity attacks.

Sometimes it’s better to run…. (Artwork by Grosnez).

The Dungeon Master’s Guide attempts to come to the rescue (p.252), and while it does introduce some fun “chase complications”, it forgets to give us any mechanics to determine the chase’s outcome, other than a) waiting for one side to drop dead of exhaustion or b) having the quarry make a successful Stealth contest to hide, and thereby escape. Which would be fine, but (as the authors themselves state) the quarry can only do when they are out of sight… and how they gain enough ground to get out of sight is not covered. 🤔

Shall we have a go at fixing this mess!?

Hell, why not…

Running a Chase: Hipster’s Rules Variant

In my revised rules, I’m going to run chases as a series of contests between participants. A success for the quarry over any given pursuer represents putting one level of separation (henceforth know as ‘gaps’) between the two of them. A success for a pursuer means the quarry is not able to open up any distance between them, while a success by 5 means that the pursuer actually closes 1 gap on the quarry.

[Note: depending on how testing goes, it may that the the quarry should have to win by 5 to open up a gap. A draw being a contest in which neither party is able to win by 5].

Here is a crib sheet for how to run this variant:

1) Establish that a chase has started.

A chase starts when a creature uses both its move action and the dash action to flee, and at least one other creature decides to pursue it, using both their move and the dash action in an attempt to keep up (in order to be on an even footing, it should do so before the start of the fleeing party’s next turn). When that happens the pursuer triggers a chase contest, and both the quarry and the pursuer roll. Any further pursuers also partake in the contest, following initiative order, comparing their roll to the quarry’s original roll.

2) Establish the appropriate skill for the contest

As the DM, determine which skill you want to use as the base of the chase contest. I suggest Strength (Athletics) for a chase taking place in relatively open terrain, like a field or hilltop, or Dexterity (Acrobatics) for a chase in obstacle-rich terrain, such as dense forest or winding/crowded city streets.

(If you don’t want to punish NPCs and monsters who don’t tend to have as many proficiencies as PCs you could opt for a straight Strength / Dexterity contest. And if you want something between Strength and Dexterity you could opt for a crossover skills check… Dexterity (Athletics), for example).

3) Establish each creature’s chase modifier

We need to reflect the fact that some creatures are faster than others, and some – like rogues with their cunning action ability – have added mobility. We can do this by applying additional “chase modifiers” to the contest.

For every 5 feet of movement above 30 feet a creature has add +4 to their chase contest modifier, for every 5 feet less, use a -4 modifier. (In other words a creature with a speed of 40 feet adds +8 to their chase contest, while a creature with 25 feet speed has a -4 modifier).

Creatures who use an ability, such as the rogue’s cunning action, to take the dash action twice in one round, gain advantage on their chase contest roll.

4) Determine the success of any pursuers

Determine if a pursuer loses 1 gap, maintains distance, or closes 1 gap on the quarry, by comparing their rolls to that of the quarry.

Any pursuer that ends their turn with zero gaps between them and the quarry may take an Attack action directed at the quarry (hint: they may want to select grapple in a bid to end the chase).

As with the rules in the DMG, we are doing away with opportunity attacks once the chase is underway, so if the quarry is still alive, and not grappled, it may continue running away without provoking further attacks.

5) Escaping / Ending the Chase

When the chase begins, as the DM, determine how many gaps the quarry must open up between itself and its closest pursuer to escape and finish the chase. I would suggest between 3 or 4 gaps for an urban chase, or 4 or 5 for a more open chase.

As an option you could give the quarry a chance to end the chase 1 gap earlier than the gaps required to outrun the pursuers, by contesting a Dexterity (Stealth) check against the Wisdom (Perception) of any pursuers. On a success they have outfoxed their hunters, finding a hiding place, or slipping away under cover. On a failure, as the DM, you will have to decide if the quarry is now cornered or in a position to dart off and start the chase again.

You can run, and you can hide… (Artwork by Czepeku).

Those 5 steps should give you a solid outline of a useable chase mechanic.

A few more things to bear in mind…

More Chase Mechanics…

6) Measuring Distances / Variable Starting Points

One gap is not meant to represent an exact distance, but, when you need to, you can consider a gap as around 30 feet. That means when a creature starts 60 feet away from an adversary which turns and flees, the chase starts with 2 gaps between the quarry and its pursuer, even before the first contest is rolled.

In the scenario when one creature flees in combat, and is pursued by not only the creature it was fighting, but by a second creature who was slightly further away on the combat grid, then the second creature suffers a -2 modifier for every 5 feet it was away from the quarry (before the quarry fled) on its initial chase contest. Obviously if it was 30 feet away simply start with 1 gap between them, before the first contest begins. (If it was 40 feet, start with 1 gap and a -4 modifier on the first contest roll).

Optional Rule: If someone wants to chase and still use their action (to cast a spell etc.), then you can let them automatically lose 1 gap on the quarry and roll the usual contest to potentially lose a second. In this case remove the chance of closing one gap, even if they roll 5 above the quarry in the chase contest.

Someone that uses neither their move, nor their action to dash, automatically loses 2 gaps on the quarry. (This might occur if someone chooses to do something first before entering the chase).

7) Consider Introducing Exhaustion

I wouldn’t bother introducing exhaustion checks within chases to begin with, as they will slow the whole scene down further, which is about the last thing you want during a high speed chase. But once you’ve got a good handle on these mechanics, I think there’s some realism and merit to the rules in the DMG (p.252).

To summarise: a creature can use the dash action in a successive numbers of rounds a number of times equal to 3 plus their Constitution modifier. After that they must make a DC 10 Constitution check or suffer one level of exhaustion. (Exhaustion levels gained during the chase can be removed by a simple short rest).

8) Obstacles / Complications

Navigating obstacles is baked into this chase rules variant system, in that success and or failure in the chase contest rolls is effectively about how well or badly a creature deals with things like low hanging branches, tree roots, divots, ditches, or in an urban chase, crowds, carriages, tight corners, piles of detritus etc…

However there’s nothing to stop you adding in the flavourful chase complications from the DMG (p.254), once you’ve got the basic mechanics running smoothly. Just use common sense to adjust the result for this system. If the quarry slips and falls prone for example, every pursuer might gain 1 gap automatically (if they themselves do not fall prey to the same obstacle!).

Another way you could handle obstacles or changing scenery in a chase would be to switch the skill used for the contest for one round. For example, if you’ve been using Dexterity (Acrobatics) to contest a chase through the narrow back allies of Waterdeep, you could switch to Strength (Athletics) when the chase opens out onto a long stretch of main road. This is also a bit quicker than consulting a table, which can slow things down.

Narrating A Chase

It’s all too easy for a potentially breathtaking chase in Dungeons & Dragons to turn into a slog of tedious dice rolls, whether you’re using my system, or the RAW (Rules As Written).

A die roll to establish or close a gap, without any descriptive context, is yawn-inspiringly dry and dull. A die roll to determine how deftly a PC manages to leap over falling barrels and then skirt around a sharp corner is immersive and fun.

In other words, the success of a chase scene in D&D is more down to how you describe it than the mechanics, so give yourself plenty of permission to improvise and have fun.

Bring the players in on it too, by describing the scenery of the chase but having them narrate how their character navigates the stacked chicken coops, tumbling barrels of oil, panicky flock of sheep etc., using their dice roll to narrate the appropriate amount of success.

So there you go! I’m looking forward to giving these a go in my next Dragon Heist session (until now I’ve been a bit lost in chase situations, so this is my concerted attempt to fix that!)… let me know how you get on with them in the comments section if you choose to try them out.

I’m going to leave you with probably the best foot chase in cinematic history for a bit of inspiration…

6 Alternatives To Starting An Adventure in a Tavern

It’s arguably Dungeon & Dragon’s biggest cliché… a group of misfits who had never before laid eyes on one another are suddenly galvanised by a tavern encounter to go forth and save the world together. And while most D&D players are more than happy to humour this convention as a means of facilitating gameplay, “you all meet in a tavern” is not the most exciting way to kick off a new campaign and to generate player excitement, given how commonplace it is. And so I thought it might be a good idea to study the alternatives.

10,000 XP if you rescue the princess! (Artwork by Another Wanderer).

Before we can do that however, we first have to consider why the tavern is the de facto starting point for 95% of fantasy quests, and what role it plays in kicking off the adventure.

The latter point is rather easier to answer, so let’s start with that. The tavern is where the adventurers receive their call to action. It’s where they meet a hooded stranger, hear a rumour, are handed a treasure map, foil an assassination, read a “wanted dead or alive” sign, or are hired by a travelling merchant.

The tavern is where the adventurers receive their call to action.

But why does this call to action always happen in a tavern? Firstly, because taverns are meeting points. In any medieval-inspired settlement, they would be the main social centres, and the hub of news and gossip, making them a natural place for the players to come into contact with interesting NPCs.

They are also places where strangers pass through, interrupting everyday life with their ‘otherness’, possibly bringing disturbing news from the north, introducing a powerful (cursed) magic item for sale, giving a cryptic clue to a lost faraway treasure, or revealing a scandalous secret in their dying breaths. (Strangers and ‘otherness’ are an oft-used device, used by storytellers, from ancient times to present, to spark interesting events that deviate from the mundane).

Importantly, a tavern is a place where any of the PCs at your table might feasibly find themselves, no matter what their back story. Few players create PCs that have stable homes in a prosperous and safe merchant town. Most are outcasts, vagrants, rogues, (lone) rangers, wanderers. It might be hard to find a location where a diverse crew of PCs, who most likely have not interlinked their back stories (even though I recommend they should… see below!), might find themselves, given their unique motivations and personalities. Itinerant souls always need a pillow to lay their head at the end of the day, however, so any overtly adventurous adventurer has cause to be found in the village tavern. Meanwhile, even stay-put city-dwelling PCs may enjoy a flagon of wine at the end of the day: who would begrudge the studious acolyte a swift half after a hard session at the library? While a wood-dwelling druid might pop into a tavern common room for a herbal tea and the local news of wandering monsters.

Anyone fancy a quiet pint? (Artwork by Scott Murphy for Wizards of the Coast).

So now that we know why the tavern is the go-to starting point for D&D adventures… because it’s a believable place for almost any newly-created PC to find themselves (whatever their back story), with rich potential for receiving calls to action via interactions with NPCs… we can start to think about how to mix it up and present new scenarios.

1. The Main Square

One “like for like” replacement for the tavern – maybe the only one – is a village, town or city’s main square. The centre of any medieval settlement, the main square was where traders came to sell their goods at market, and it would be full of merchants, nobles, peasants, travellers, bards and other entertainers. It was also the place where politicians delivered speeches and town criers announced news from neighbouring settlements, and would play host to fairs, tournaments, street theatre, parades and other spectacles. It may also have served as a place of executions, and a gathering point during any uprisings and civil unrest.

The medieval town square of Hallstatt in Austria

In other words these market squares were places ripe with adventure, so your PCs will hardly need an excuse to be hanging out here, and you, as the DM, will have plenty of scope to deliver the call to action that kickstarts your adventure. Whether it’s a creepy soothsayer grabbing a PC with their spindly arm and prophesying a gruesome event, militant clerics arresting a respected civilian for heresy, or a straight forward “heroes wanted” announcement bawled aloud by a noble’s steward, the possibilities are close to endless.

2. Other Urban Locations

After a town’s taverns and market square, there are a few other places which, while not quite as open-ended, could be considered as a potential starting point for a D&D adventure. The docks of a seaside town are a lively meeting point for sailors, gossip mongers, soldiers, custom officers, drunks, merchants, travellers and strange cargo. Pious PCs might be found in a temple (hint: injured fighters tend to develop new found piety, as do poisoned rogues), scholarly parties might have a reason to be in a library, and those with official business might be found in a town hall. A bridge is always an exciting place for a fight to break out.

Obviously larger cities have more potential for creative starting points than small villages, but in this example I want you to think of public spaces that are accessible to the PCs without any pre-conditions. You, or they, might still have to work on why they’d be there (at the same time).

3. The Event

One of my favourite ways to start an adventure is not at a geographical location per se, but at a social ‘location’, i.e. at an event. You hardly need to come up with an excuse for why PCs would be attending a festival, fair or tournament, and after that anything can happen. A princess throws a PC a flower (that has a secret message wrapped around its stem), a wealthy noble is poisoned, a fight breaks out between pro and anti-monarchists, a patron sees potential in the party (after they foil a thief, or win a tournament prize) that will help them achieve their aims, a valuable item goes missing from the town’s treasure vault and the travelling circus are blamed. Again the possibilities stretch a long way for this one.

I just came to admire the lanterns! (Artwork by Unodu).

Some potential events you could use as starting points would be.

i. Festival (be sure to use some real life inspiration for what that might entail… parades, costumes, religious ceremonies, music, drinking, dancing are a good start)
ii. Travelling carnival or circus
iii. (Trade) fair or exposition
iv. Tournament or sporting event
v. Royal wedding
vi. Costume or masked ball
vii. Funeral (for a statesperson or hero)
viii. Speech (announcing a controversial new law)
ix. Execution
x. Uprising or riot

Any of these would lend your world a lot of flavour and make the start of your adventure more memorable than most.

4. The Mission Debriefing Room

Worried your PCs won’t bite on your hook (i.e. your call to action)? Well fast forward the adventure just a jot, and make the decision for them. In this scenario, before your players have even made their PCs, it’s best to tell them clearly to “make a character who would be interested in going on a quest for… (loot, honour, revenge, adventure etc.)” and you start the adventure with them receiving their orders from whoever has recruited them for this mission (more on this concept here). Maybe the PCs are members of the Gray Hands, in which case the starting point is Blackstaff Towers in Waterdeep, where Vajra lays out their mission objectives. In general the ‘geographical location’ might be any office, meeting room, reception chamber etc. or other private space (including in the back room, or private section, of a tavern!) where their patron or superior officer can confidentially pass on the assignment.

5. In Media Res

In fact, now that we’ve liberated ourselves from roleplaying the PCs receiving their call to action, we can fast forward the adventure even further if we so choose. One scenario that has come up a few occasions in my years as a player is that, as a party, we’ve already accepted an assignment to guard a merchant caravan (which of course is attacked, cue the opening scene). But others could be yet more daring. The PCs have been entrusted to deliver a magic item from out of a bloody siege that is in full flow, or they need to escape from a collapsing castle pronto, or they are already swimming towards an island jail to free a political prisoner. There’s a reason however why this option is rarely used, and that’s because there’s a D&D convention that says the PCs should make all their character decisions, including, importantly, the original acceptance of any quest (hence the tavern!).

…for a one shot you should definitely be thinking about this option to maximise your time playing the real crux of the quest…

However, I will repeat the point I made about having the players make a PC who would specifically be interested in the type of adventure, as a DM, you’re planning to run. And while for a long running campaign it’s nice to be traditional and start at the very beginning of an adventure, for a one shot you should definitely be thinking about this option to maximise your time playing the real crux of the quest, and not bother muddling through the awkward formalities.

6. The Prison

A classic – even if it also borders on cliché! Starting an adventure in a prison provides a compelling shared motivation for the PCs that has been the start of many great adventures, and the catalyst to many adventuring parties getting together to save the multiverse. Spice things up by having them hooded, bound, gagged, drugged, interrogated, you name it!

Pssssst! Wanna get outta here, bro? (Artwork by Kleyos).

Hopefully this article has inspired you to think outside the box for your next adventure as a DM, but before I go, I just want to touch on a couple more things related to this topic.

Firstly…

Get The Players To Interweave Their Back Stories

One thing you can do that can either remove your reliance on the tavern as a starting location, or at least reduce the amount of awkward introductions and “hey strangers, wouldn’t it be swell if we teamed up to save the world”-style roleplaying interactions is ask the players to interweave their PCs’ back stories. If for example the party are part of the Emerald Enclave then it makes sense that they would all be a winter solstice party in the woods (when zombies attack!), so you can get rid of the tavern scene. If two PCs are related, and are two more are close friends, then the leap in logic to make them team up to go on a quest is that much smaller and less incredulous. Not only this but asking the players to think how their PCs might know each other will lead to better and deeper back stories that you, as the DM, can tap into, and will also make the players care more than just the skin of their own PC… leading to a better gaming experience for all.

Secondly, if you do decide to stick with the classic tavern formula, here’s how to do it well:

Make the Tavern (Scene) Memorable…

Confession time! The last two campaigns of my D&D group both started in taverns, and the last was DM’ed by yours truly. Both however proved to be successful first sessions. My friend Juan started his take on the Dragonlance campaign with us hiding from the rain in a tavern built into the branches of a towering tree. He first gave us a chance to indulge in some fun improvised roleplaying with NPCs (several of whom had valuable information for us), before having a dragon burst through the ceiling. That’s quite an epic start at level 1! Obviously we were forced to flee, as kobold and dragon forces stormed the settlement, making for an extremely tense and scary first session.

I’m currently running Dragon Heist and I modified the opening scenario of the Yawning Portal tavern to include elements from the PCs back stories (hint: my supplement Waterdeep Background Hooks might help you do the same!), and I pimped up the bar room scuffle into a more intriguing assassination attempt on Davil Starsong that plays into the story’s main narrative (meanwhile I got rid of the troll attack, which doesn’t serve much purpose except as a teaser for Dungeon of the Mad Mage, which we’re unlikely to play. Although I did describe adventurers descending into the well, to help build an atmospheric locale).

In both cases action-packed events got us off to memorable starts – events which forced PCs to work together to deal with a threat, thus forming their adventuring party – plus the taverns themselves were distinct locations, with bold features that the players can easily picture in their minds.

In other words, there’s nothing wrong with starting in the tavern, but aim for a compelling action scene in a unique locale, that galvanises the party into co-operating. Sprinkle in roleplaying opportunities that are relevant to the campaign and by the time it’s ready you should have successfully baked the best version of this classic D&D recipe.

Tavern Supplements on DMs Guild

I actually love the romanticism of hanging out in taverns in D&D, even if I do champion the idea of starting your adventure somewhere else if possible. Taverns are not just for the beginnings of quests; they can provide unique locales for any number of key scenes at any point along the campaign trail. For some time I’ve been meaning to write a compendium of original pubs, inns and hostelries, but guess what… someone has beaten me to it!

You can buy the current number 1 bestseller Taverns, Inns and Taprooms on the Dungeon Master’s Guild.

Further Reading

For a bit more of fast and furious inspiration for alternative campaign starts try this list by Dangermouse, or this one by Dndspeak.

For a deeper understanding of campaign starts, Angry GM raises some interesting points here, in a rather wordy, but worthwhile, post.

Call Lightning is Really Boring… Here’s How To Fix It!

My second ever 5e character was a tempest cleric called Jaxx Storm. Safely floating to shore in a barrel as a baby, after his boat was shipwrecked, he believed himself to be the son of Shaundakul, and had an attitude to match his (self-declared) demi-god status. I had a lot of fun playing him, as he was pretty versatile. I could switch between being pretty handy in melee (I enjoyed knocking people over with my shield – using Shieldmaster feat – and then smashing them with my morning star) and casting utility spells, and I never tired of unleashing wrath of the storm (p.62, Player’s Handbook) on my opponents.

However, as I played through levels 1-4, what I was really looking forward to was reaching 5th level and getting my hands on call lightning. When that happened my PC became a lot more powerful, as I had expected, but sadly he also became a lot less fun to play…

Call Lightning

3rd level conjuration

Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 120 feet
Components: V, S
Duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes

A storm cloud appears in the shape of a cylinder that is 10 feet tall with a 60-foot radius, centered on a point you can see 100 feet directly above you. The spell fails if you can’t see a point in the air where the storm cloud could appear (for example, if you are in a room that can’t accommodate the cloud).

When you cast the spell, choose a point you can see within range. A bolt of lightning flashes down from the cloud to that point. Each creature within 5 feet of that point must make a Dexterity saving throw. A creature takes 3d10 lightning damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one. On each of your turns until the spell ends, you can use your action to call down lightning in this way again, targeting the same point or a different one.

If you are outdoors in stormy conditions when you cast this spell, the spell gives you control over the existing storm instead of creating a new one. Under such conditions, the spell’s damage increases by 1d10.

At Higher Levels: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher level, the damage increases by 1d10 for each slot level above 3rd.

Bring the storm!

Looks Great… So What’s The Problem?

The problem with this spell is that a) it’s too good – it does significantly more damage than a cleric’s melee attacks and other spell options at 5th level, and b) it goes on forever. The result was that I ended up using call lightning every time we entered a major combat. And so, instead of getting involved in the fight, I just hung around at the back of the battle doing the same thing every turn… another 3d10 damage. This, it turns out, is really f*cking boring!

Given that you could theoretically keep on casting call lightning for 100 turns of combat, hitting maybe two foes on average, you could potentially end up doing around 600 x d10 (3300) hit points of damage using just one third level spell slot. In practice this is rarely going to happen, but a cleric of the tempest or a druid taking cover behind a battlement could swing a long battle single-handedly with just this one spell, making it ridiculously overpowered in certain circumstances.

That’s another reason why I’m tempted to tinker with this one…

Hipster’s Fix

How can we solve these issues neatly, without nerfing the spell? My suggestion is that after initially casting the spell and calling down your first bolt, at the start of each subsequent turn you must roll a d6. On a 5 or 6, the storm cloud you have conjured has recharged and you can unleash another bolt on your foes. On a 1-4 it keeps brewing, meaning you can’t use it this turn – however for each turn the storm brews you can add an extra d10 damage when you next are able to call down a bolt.

This adds a really fun random twist to proceedings. In two out of three rounds you’ll have to find something else to do, maybe joining melee or casting another (non concentration) spell. But when the 5 or 6 turns up the fun factor of bringing down another lightning bolt returns… especially fun if it has charged up to 4, 5, 6 or god knows how many d10s of damage.

By both reducing the number of times it can be used, and by increasing the likelihood of the caster losing concentration (as they won’t want to spend their time taking cover and doing nothing on the rounds it doesn’t recharge), this fix also balances the spell quite nicely, I believe.

Sadly Jaxx Storm is in retirement right now, so please get back to me if you have a chance to implement this fix in your game… just leave a comment below!

For more spell discussions check out these posts on why hypnotic pattern is too good, why fireball is so much better than lightning bolt, and dealing with banishment. There’s usually some good reader comments as well.

The Lion & The Blades, by Weston Prestage

The DMs Guild is the resource that keeps on giving and I never fail to be astonished by the creativity and industry of the many many contributors enlarging the Dungeons & Dragons multiverse. Expanded monster manuals, epic compendiums of NPC statblocks, planar guides, warlock handbooks, and my own guide to magic weapons (get a free sample here!), there’s so much rich material to add to your game.

For all the handbooks, player options, and new lore, for my money there’s nothing quite as romantic as an adventure, especially when it takes you back – Stranger Things-style – to a pre-digital world of kids riding their BMXes through the rain to clatter dice together during the school holidays. And so, without further ado, let me give over the reins to Weston Prestage, whose adventure, The Lion and the Blades, is steeped in 2nd edition nostalgia…

Tell us about your adventure, The Lion and the Blades…

It’s a city / dock / sewer adventure for a 1st level party. Taking place over one intense speed run with no breaks or hit point boosting power naps. It starts a group off like being shot from a cannon into the intensity of what D&D always was for me. Hot, fast and often brutal… grim meat hook realities… lying in wait for bad choices and bad rolls… and the rewards of REAL emotion at your success or failures.

I made this adventure when I was 14, and it was written in the twisted yet simplistic style of the mind of a 14-year-old Dungeon Master who ran a group of four to six players in a small town in rural New Zealand in the year 1991. I have brought it up to 5e standards without losing the old school 2nd edition – mostly made up as you go along, out of total imagination and written in the back of your math book in class, feel.

The Lion and the Blades is a “Linear” Adventure to a degree… the players are not wandering about mission-less, paralyzed by sandy boxy free choice.

Buy The Lion & The Blades on the DMs Guild

Why did you write it?

Back in the early days, I always had a hard time starting off adventurers on their first few levels, as most of what was available back in the early 90s was high level stuff or pretty dull, orc and goblins in rooms or caves in the hills stuff… I wanted to start guys off with a bang… and so I would make adventures where a powerful NPC mentored them… kind of.

I had big goals that my games and adventures were always going to be amazing. That the players will be faced with challenge after challenge and it will possibly be too much for them, mentally. My adventures have been known to cause grown men to lie down on the floor and refuse to get up until the mad merry go round stops. Others enjoy the carnie roller-coaster feel of my adventures. When, back in 91, the guys showed up at my house after riding in the rain for an hour – they needed something to bring them back to life. My adventures did just that.

How about a little taster then?

Knowing how much players love swimming their characters through freezing cold water toward adventure I made sure to include this:

The party comes to a large pipe with sea sounds and sea smells from the seashore issuing from it – a salty and refreshing change from the slimy sewers. Leon asks if someone would scout stoutly ahead to make sure the coast is clear. He also says that if anyone has anything that water would ruin, to leave it here as now they will be swimming aways.

After 20 feet of crawling, the pipe ends underneath a wharf. Leon jumps out and starts swimming strongly through the cold dark salty seawater, towards a huge and terrifying, Black and Blue painted Galleon, bristling with gun hatches (if you run a gunpowder game) and vicious barnacles. This is the Black and Blue Lass. The wooden pillars that support the wharf are spaced 20 feet apart and the players must swim through the freezing water with attendant penalties from the cold. Bad swimmers can swim/ from wharf pillar to wharf pillar clutching and sputtering at each of these, on the way to the galleon…

Who the hell are you by the way?

I’ve been playing since January 1985… I met a kid called Ben, who introduced me to a game called Tunnels and Trolls.

Ben and I played this game a lot over that summer in a sweltering little caravan…with my characters Rambo I, II and III.

My foolish and reckless play style got me killed often but undaunted I made my own dungeon and killed other people’s characters.

When I was 11, I could finally understand the Red Box I got for Xmas when I was 10. Then a teenager sold me all his 1st ed books at the same time 2nd ed came out. By 13 I’m playing a twisted house ruled out of control bastard mix of all of the above and did so until 16. Every weekend and holiday… A good 20 hours a week + 15 hours creating adventures with my gaming group of 6 players.

I resisted 3.0 – 3.5 all the way until I was 26 when I was up in a cabin in the wilds of Canada hanging with some hippies and one day one of them said “The way you speak… You sound like a Dungeon Master… I made the outrageous claim that I was not only a 47th level Dungeon master, but one of the top 10 on the planet…and the only difference between myself and Dungeon Masters …. is that I am a Dungeon Master.

He produced a 3.0 players handbook and some battered dice and the twisted hippies forced me to read the book cover to cover and kept me as a captive in a cabin for 26 straight days while I took them on an immense campaign 1st level to 17th – all adventures run from memory …seamlessly and flawlessly.

I have taken breaks now and then to work and get things done, but when I get rolling on playing its fully immersed.

Now Im 42 – I have a “D and D room” in my house and every book worth having since 1977– EVERY Dungeon magazine, Every Dragon Magazine, and my poor 7 year old son starts every second sentence with “In D & D…”

I kept playing right into the unplayable mass of piddling plusses and minuses that pathfinder became before almost going into a brain dead coma from it all… then 5e liberated me like a firebird from the sooty nightmare realm of min maxed optimized builds and pictures of cartoony monsters wielding giant weapons.

If someone had told me as a child that I would spend countless hours over the next 35 years scribbling into notebooks, rolling dice, making funny voices and would go without food, sleep and even destroy perfectly good relationships with perfectly proportioned women all for the thrill of helping others follow me through a glowing green portal into an imaginary world populated with fairies, elves and gremlins I would have grabbed them by the arm and said…

“THERE’S A” PORTAL????!!!!!”

And what else have you written?

I have written about 20 other adventures, a number I converted to 3.5 and were very popular on old D&D websites back in the day. They are almost all insanely epic in scope 40+ hours each – not the stuff for beer and pretzels play… but more like group of 14 year olds living in a remote area fodder. In their original note form, each adventure filled 3-4 school notebooks. One is almost 400 pages long. If I had the strength … I would convert them to 5e for DMs guild.

I can send people the 3.5 PDFs if anyone is interested.

And just for fun…

What’s your current PC?

I have never really played in anyone’s game before, I’ve always DMed… what I do is make up insane NPCs and kind of play them along with the players… like Glambrax. A demented mullet wearing alcoholic human afflicted with dwarfism. He is numb from years of self-abuse and wild with rage at his own existence. When not trying to win prizefights, he lives in a barrel in the slums and sells roasted rats and a crude beer fermented from acorns.

Both rats and acorns being gathered for him by street urchins he has befriended.

What’s your favorite character class?

Dwarven Rogue. Tough and rough, low Charisma, low dex, high strength and constitution, chops through chests instead of picking them, crowbars traps apart instead of disarming them and screams at people instead of persuading them…

What’s your favorite monster?

Twisted NPCs… it could be a deranged fisherman… a crazed orphan Elf or a human with dwarfism that has racially appropriated the Duergar race. The kookier and more intense the better.

What’s your favorite official D&D adventure?

The UK Series… they are all amazing, but the shining gem is When a Star Falls. I love massive wilderness adventures that have many plots and twists going on at once.

You can get in touch with me, Weston Prestage, via email: agentfestaskull@gmail.com

Buy The Lion & The Blades on the DMs Guild

Page 1 of 6

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén