Hipsters & Dragons

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

Category: Tips for DMs (Page 1 of 2)

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.

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 2 druid can transform into two CR 1 creatures during a day, or one CR 1 creature and two 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.

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.

Free Fantasy Music by Michael Ghelfi

With the world building, adventure planning, NPC creating and rules revising us DMs have to do, it’s hardly a surprise that music and ambient sounds are often hurriedly sourced as an after thought, or else overlooked completely. However, more than a Dungeon Master’s lovingly-prepared scene description, a well-chosen soundtrack can capture the mood of a scene, and help lift the curtain on the theatre of the mind, fully immersing us in the story.

Recently I had a chat with talented composer Michael Ghelfi, who has created a diverse music portfolio of ambient and background sounds that you incorporate into your D&D games and made them available for free on Youtube.

From campfires at dusk, to raging battles (complete with cavalry charges), he’s covered many of the classic scenarios that unfold during any compelling fantasy RPG session…

Here’s what happened when we talked music and Dungeons & Dragons in general…

Why is sound important to you in D&D?

Imagine a world where the only sounds you would hear are voices, nothing else. Would you find it enjoyable? How would you qualify that world? Since it’s actually impossible to add sounds to each of our D&D actions, we have to find workarounds, and music and ambiences are the best options. Sound is incredibly efficient to help us imagine places. As an experienced DM, I never write a single sentence without listening to some carefully chosen music or ambience, sometimes both at the same time.

What is your musical background and what do you aim to achieve with your audio creations?

I’m a self-taught fantasy and orchestral music composer, and I use my knowledge to create very high quality ambient tracks for RPGs, with a focus on D&D (since it’s my favorite). I started creating unique ambiences because I never found satisfying ones on the Internet for my D&D sessions. So, since I have the knowledge and the material to make them, I created them myself!

Now I have around 80 different ambience tracks and I’m creating and uploading a new one every two days. I won’t stop before I reach 200 different tracks at least… so stay tuned because this is a fast growing project! Oh, and they are all free.

For those more interested in music, I have also composed more than 160 different songs in ~20 genres. Sometimes I use both music and sound effects at the same time at my tables, for example for a tavern scene.

How can people access your music/sounds?

Youtube is the best option, everything is uploaded on it in loops of 1 hour.

You can also download them on my Bandcamp page as 30-minutes loops.

Getting them on Bandcamp doesn’t give you any premium advantage or whatever, it’s just an option I gave to people who want to support the artist and have the sounds on their computer.

Also to stay tuned to Facebook, Patreon and Twitter.

And just for fun…

What is your current PC?

I have to admit something: I’m not a player, I’m only a DM. I had a few characters when I began but they are either forgotten or dead. My players never DM because they tend to compare their adventures with mine (which is a mistake, don’t compare, play for fun), and since I put a LOT of effort and passion in what I do… they end up waiting on me to organize another session!

So instead of speaking about my favorite PC, I will speak about my favorite NPC, which was called “Azmija”. She was a fortune teller with two personalities fighting each other. One personality wanted the players to banish the other half, and the other half wanted to destroy the players who were the only real threat to her (in the game that was more complex than that but you got it).

Your favourite character class?

The Mageblade. What is this? It’s a homebrew class I created, used by some of my players. To make it simple, it’s a melee class with a few non-aggressive spells and highly randomized effects on attacks (both positive and negative to the player and his entourage). It blends very well in the game, and I’m quite proud of my work.

Your favourite monster?

I will chose a non-homebrew content this time. I will mention the Ghost. It’s indeed a low-CR monster, but it’s definitely useful against those min-max players who tend to focus on DEX/STR/CST and have very low other characteristics. Also ghosts are an infinite source of roleplay opportunities.

Your favourite official D&D adventure?

Lost Mines of Phandelver. I started playing D&D on this scenario, so it will ever have a special place in my heart.

Your favourite unofficial D&D adventure?

“Archipelago of the Sun”. It’s a 400 pages campaign I’m writing, featuring a whole new language with its own script, grammar and vocabulary. Players have to translate it to uncover the final plot of the story. The campaign will be edited and published this year, along a 200 pages book of additional rules (including the Mageblade and five other classes) and a ton of 30 pages scenarios.

Your D&D alter ego?

Archmage Demetrian. It’s an archmage specialized in teleportation, alchemy and illusions. It’s also my writer name. I include him in my campaigns as a secondary protagonist, like Quentin Tarantino does with himself in his movies. Quentin plays in them, but he’s nearly useless or just very secondary.

In my campaigns, I made it clear that Demetrian wasn’t important, so they don’t bother investigating about him, they just buy potions to him and ask for teleportation. Sometimes my players wonder if he’s not in fact the big bad guy of the stories. SPOILER: He’s not. He makes potions.

Thanks so much for your attention, and don’t hesitate to contact me to speak about music, D&D, worldbuilding or linguistics!

Great Weapon Master Feat… OP’ed or not?

There are three feats that the vast majority of Dungeon Masters consider broken, according to this survey by Think DM.

One of them is Lucky, the only feat to get banned on my table and one which I discussed previously on this blog (and which in turn generated scores of conflicting comments, with many people rushing to its defense. I’ll let you read their reasons yourselves). Another is Sharp Shooter, which perhaps I’ll talk about another time. The third, and today’s topic, is Great Weapon Master.

It’s an interesting feat for sure… the Player’s Handbook states:

Great Weapon Master

You’ve learned to put the weight of a weapon to your advantage, letting its momentum empower your strikes. You gain the following benefits:

  • On your turn, when you score a critical hit with a melee weapon or reduce a creature to 0 hit points with one, you can make one melee weapon attack as a bonus action.
  • Before you make a melee attack with a heavy weapon that you are proficient with, you can choose to take a -5 penalty to the attack roll. If the attack hits, you add +10 to the attack’s damage.

The concept is simple. You’re a big brave brute who has sacrificed a shield (and an ability modifier to take this feat), in order to do maximum possible damage with each swing of your blade.

The first of the two benefits raises few eyebrows… critical hits are pretty rare after all, as is reducing a creature to zero hit points.

The second benefit is where the controversy comes in. An additional 10 damage is massive. If you consider a greatsword does on average 7 damage, it’s kind of crazy that there’s a feat that allows you to do another 143% of that damage as part of the same attack. Everything hinges on that -5 modifier… but in a game of low ACs and high bonuses to hit, not to mention various potential ways to get advantage on your attacks, is that enough of a penalty to justify that huge damage haul?

Ready to do serious damage…

Some Maths…

I’m not going to go super nerdy on this one… this is Hipsters & Dragons remember! I’ve got some art house movies to watch with a locally brewed IPA later tonight (ok, the next episode of Vikings, with some cheap Spanish wine…), but let’s do some simplified sums. I’m doing this on the fly… in other words I haven’t drawn a definitive conclusion about the feat myself yet. Plus the maths might be shoddy, so stay sharp.

Taking a 5th level fighter as an example, let’s see how much damage he does using this feat in three rounds of combat against an opponent with AC 15, versus how much he does without using it. Let’s say he’s got 18 Strength, and a +1 sword by now. His name is Ted.

For simplicity sake I will discount how critical hits effect the maths, and assume there is no advantage on these rolls for now.

Without the feat (5th level fighter)

Ted has a to hit bonus of +8, meaning he needs a 7 to hit AC 15 (70% chance). He does 2d6 +5 damage per hit (12) and has 6 attacks in three rounds. Therefore he does 0.7 x 12 x 6 = 50.4 damage in total.

With the feat (5th level fighter)

With his -5 penalty, Ted now has only a +3 bonus, meaning he needs a 12 to hit (45%). He does 2d6 + 15 damage per hit (22) times the 6 attacks. Therefore he does 0.45 x 22 x 6 = 59.4 damage total.

Hmmmm, it’s not too strong. Just 9 hit points difference, and if you chose to increase your Strength by 2, instead of choosing this feat, you would have dealt an extra 4.5 hit points in those six attacks. That said, I feel that the damage outputs should be closer, if not even. With outputs like this it just means you will opt to use the power nearly every time, and reliably come out on top…

Anyway let’s run the same example with a 10th level fighter, and assume this time that Ted has advantage on his attack rolls for one of the three rounds. Being 10th level, Ted now has a +2 sword.

Without the feat (10th level fighter)

Ted has to a hit bonus of +10, meaning he needs a 5 to hit AC 15 (80% chance), with advantage 96% chance. He does 2d6 + 6 (13) per hit. So in two rounds he does 0.8 x 13 x 4 = 41.6, and in the final round 0.96 x 13 x 2 = 24.96. So a grand total = 66.56 damage

With the feat (10th level fighter)

With his -5 penalty, Ted now has a hit bonus of +5, meaning he needs a 10 to hit AC 15 (55% chance), and with advantage (79.75%). He does 2d6 +16 (23) per hit. So in two rounds he does 0.55 x 23 x 4 = 50.6, and in the final round 0.7975 x 23 x 2 = 36.685. So a grand total = 87.285 damage.

Ok now I’m beginning to see what people are complaining about. That’s pretty big gains over just three rounds. This feat is definitely going to start unbalancing the game at higher levels, especially if it’s being paired with other skills like the barbarian’s reckless attack feature to get advantage more frequently.

In general I like the concept… take a risk, and get a reward… I probably wouldn’t go far to say the feat is broken, but with 5th edition’s low AC monsters and its frequently employed advantage mechanic, the risk / reward dynamic doesn’t feel quite right, and it does come over as overpowered.

Hipster’s Fix

The first part of the feat works just fine in my experience, and is especially fun when mopping up low level mooks in a fight. I am happy to leave that well alone. As for the second part, here are my suggestions…

Option 1

The simplest way to fix the problematic part of this feat would be to keep the same risk, but reduce the reward. In general the flat 10 extra damage doesn’t sit well with me. It’s too dull, and too guaranteed, and it doesn’t scale on a critical (annoying from a player’s perspective!). So I would simply substitute the +10, for 2d6 extra damage, which is a) more fun and b) a bit less powerful, ie. more balanced.

When you bear in mind that most characters using Great Weapon Master feat will also have selected the Greater Weapon Fighting Style that allows you to reroll 1s and 2s, then the average damage is actually 8.33 (not 7), so only slightly nerfed from 10. Especially as between 5 and 10% of the time (ie. when you get critical hits) you will be doing 16.67, which will bring the average up some more.

Option 2

Another way of approaching a fix, would be to say, you can only land these killer +10 blows when you have advantage on the attack roll. Only when you’ve snuck up on your opponent unseen, or they’re rolling about prone on the floor, do you have the time to put your full force into the blow and have any hope of hitting. This means you don’t get to use it so often, but when you do, it tends to pay off big.

Option 3

A third idea I had would be to simply say… whenever you have advantage on a melee attack roll with a heavy weapon you deal an extra 1d6 damage. No penalty to hit. Simple and situational, this saves on any maths and also indecision that sometimes accompanies this feat (“shall I take the penalty or not? Erm, err.”) which can eat up valuable game time.

Option 4

Just thought of a fourth option. You could make dealing the extra damage reliant on a using a bonus action as well. This seems to have some logic… such a powerful blow might take a little extra time to work up to, as you adjust your stance and wind up for the kill. This is perhaps the best way to keep GWM on the table as written, but preventing it from getting out of hand, as it would limit its use to once per turn. This same solution works well for limiting the burst damage of divine smite. Hmmm, it does however screw with the first part of the feat, whereby you get to make a free melee attack as a bonus action, if you kill / crit a creature. You could however give extra attack as a free action on those occasions.

Option 5

A simply fix you might like has arrived in the comments section.

There you go! How have you got on with Great Weapon Master feat on your table? Have you come up with a fix that works for you? Please comment below, and feel free to pull me up on my tired, probably incorrect maths, obvious things I forgot to take into consideration and anything else. Just keep it polite, as you normally do.

Oh by the way, did you check these 5e magic weapons I homebrewed? They are free for use in your game.

Do Paladins’ Auras of Protection Stack?

Yes, but they definitely shouldn’t. Aura of protection is hardly 5e D&D’s most glamorous ability, but gameplay shows it be one of the most powerful tools in the game (….as if the paladin doesn’t have enough of those already, with the insanely overpowered (IMHO) divine smite and lay on hands).

One aura of protection already provides a massive boost to a party in almost every combat, but once you’ve got two paladins in your party things get insane. Just by staying tight, the whole party could constantly be benefiting from +6 on every saving throw! 

And it’s not just an adventuring consideration. What happens if the PCs need to take out a cadre of four evil paladins? Provided the bad guys stayed close to one another, they could easily be getting +12 on their saving throws… I wouldn’t want to be a caster charged with facing them!

Anyway, you probably don’t need any convincing… you’ve already experienced it for yourself, and that’s why you’re here. Well here’s a little house rule you can use to lessen the effect.

  1. Multiple auras of protections don’t stack if the paladins worship different gods. The creature in question can benefit from just the strongest aura.
  2. Where two or more auras of protection of paladins who worship the same god overlap, a creature benefits from the strongest aura, with an additional +1 bonus for every extra aura they are overlapped by.

101+ Terrain Features for Better Combats

I was just reading DM David’s latest post, about “locations and (monster) tactics that encourage dynamic combat scenes“. As always with his excellent blog there are some great ideas there.

One thing he didn’t cover though was specific terrain features that can turn a drab, barren grid into a dynamic combat environment, so I felt inspired to do just that.

…the most memorable moments in a fight often come through a PC interacting with their environment in a creative way.

Apart from creating additional obstacles and interests, terrain features – be they humble bushes or a series of a crate of ripe melons ready to be tipped over – can be used, by the resourceful player, as cover, to hide, or for some other tactical advantage. In my experience, the most memorable moments in a fight often come through a PC interacting with their environment in a creative way.

Winning initiative is key when you’re fighting on a log bridge…

Let’s create two lists… wilderness terrain features and indoors terrain features.

Wilderness Terrain Features

Bushes
Trees
Fallen tree
Boulders or rocks (some massive, others that could double as weapons)
Ditch
Brook
River
Bridge
River ford
Stepping stones or giant lillypads
Slippery log bridge
Lake (with jetty, and moored boats)
Waterfall
Drystone wall
Crumbling ruins of an ancient temple
Hut, shed or barn
Farmhouse
Windmill or watermill
Crate of ripe melons
Long grass, meadow or wheat field
Scarecrow (not the monster… or is it?)
Quicksand
Vines (to swing on)
Erupting geysers
Beehives
Pack of wild dogs
Nest of poisonous vipers
Stampede of buffalo / elephants / dinosaurs
Bog (with bloodsucking leeches)
Campfire
Wagon
Burial mound
Tombstones
Gorge or canyon
Hill, slope or ravine
Landslide
Cave entrance
Moss-covered skeleton of a long-dead dragon
Pit
Well
Sundial
Bales of dry hay
Smoke
Animal snares
Tripwire
Plants that give off poisonous spores
A tree that is really a treant
A huge savage beast that doesn’t like you or your foes
Zone of slowness
Gallows

Weather Features

Since you’re outdoors, don’t forget to consider what the weather is like (as well as whether it’s night or day time). Some conditions that could seriously affect the outcome of any fight are…

An impenetrable mist (range attacks impossible)
Driving rain (range attacks with disadvantage, roll DC 10 Dexterity (Acrobatics) every round not to fall prone on slippery ground)
Galeforce winds
Snowstorm or sandstorm
Freak hailstorm of small rocks which does 1d4 bludgeoning damage a round to anyone in it…
Solar or lunar eclipse

Dungeon or Indoor Terrain Features

Stalactites / stalagmites
Chasm
Pit
Bridge (natural stone or rope? Or broken?)
Underground river (is that water or acid?)
Underground lake (with a ravenous beast inside)
Lava flow
Tables and chairs
Steps and staircases (trapped?)
Ramp
Throne
Altar
Coffins or tombs
Crates
Barrels (full of oil)
Statues
Prisoners in hanging cages
Columns, pillars and plinths
Alcoves
Arches
Maze
Mirrors (…or mirror maze!)
Tapestries
Chandeliers
Slippery, polished marble floor
Portal
Firepit
Fountain
Arrow slits (from which baddies pepper you with crossbow bolts)
Walls that start to close in
Water that starts to rise
Gas that starts to fill the room
Skylight
Murder holes
Trapdoor
Floortiles that randomly give way to spiked pits
Levers that set off various traps
Portcullis
Exploding fungi
Swarm of plague-carrying rats
Lots of confusing illusions
Wind tunnel
Animated armour and weapons
Lift / elevator
Mining cart and tracks
Ladder
Strategically placed glyphs of warding
Giant moving cogs
Giant spiderwebs
Sewers
Bookshelves
Curtains
Magical darkness
Jets of hot steam
Vacuum
Huge bell
Clock
Narrow ledge
Cauldron of steaming liquid
Giant, swinging thurible
Zone of silence
Ropers hanging from the ceiling

What did I miss? Please pipe up in the comments. Damn, pipes.

Of course pimping the terrain is just one way to make combat more interesting, and hopefully this got the juices flowing, but there are plenty more tricks the wily DM can pull out of their toolbox to spice things up when the d20s start a’rollin’. No doubt I’ll return to this topic in due course.

Identifying Magic Items (with Arcana)

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

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

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

Official Rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arcana Checks

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

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

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

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

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

arcana identify magic items

Finally, a freaking label…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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