Sunday, 28 December 2014

Dungeon Master: In-Game Legal Systems

Up until now I have been covering a bunch of small, isolated topics that relate to running a game and creating a world. Naturally, part of building a world is creating cities or making them come alive. One element that I constantly end up referring back to when I build a world is the legal system regions may possess. Though it may sound boring, I think it is extremely important when designing regions and cities. I will be exploring exactly why I feel this is the case as well as present the way I usually use it.

Why Bother?

Part of living in a society is being subjected to rules. By creating legal systems, there is an instant contrast from the natural wild your players may spend a lot of time in (especially when dungeon trekking is a core part of the story) and the cities they visit. Simply killing someone on the streets of a city will feel much riskier if they are aware of the legal system and guards present. It also serves as a contrast to mostly unguarded trails, where bandits are common and folks go missing. It can also serve as a way to really contrast cultures or regions.


The laws can be put in place based on region, ruler at the time (if area changes hands as part of a war, laws can change) or other factors (there may be laws of war). To make matters easier and to not have to make laws for every city you ever want to make, laws can be defined by the entire world (make the entire world have one set of laws, and then some rare exceptions) or by region. This will allow for uniqueness between cities while also making it easier for the Dungeon Master by not forcing them to explicitly define laws for everything (players can be told that unless otherwise specified, they follow the general laws).

What Should the Laws Cover?

History has shown that laws can be very different from region to region. However, since we are talking about role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, there are going to be certain activities that we have to explicitly consider. These are:
  • Killing people (Is killing someone legal if it is in the form of a duel, in self-defence, defending your honour, just because you felt like it and you are higher standing or any combination of the above?)
  • Assaulting people (Same reasons as above, but instead of killing them just hurting them)
  • Stealing (Does the amount stolen factor into the punishment, and are there different types of stealing like stealing from a temple, that are considered worse?)
  • Carrying weapons (what, where and who)
  • Trespassing (Yeah, this is mainly for the sneakers)
  • Using magic (Where and under what conditions is magic legal?)
  • Worship (Is it illegal to worship certain gods like the god of murder?)
The reason for those in particular is because those elements directly influence the options players have to pursue their goals and touch upon every class (combat, stealing/trespassing and magic use). You also have to consider:
  • What are the consequences for committing a crime?
  • How are criminals prosecuted? If framed for a crime, is there even a chance to defend yourself?
  • How are the laws enforced? Do guards show up for everything and take you to jail, or can you get a bill in the mail for petty theft? How many guards will there be if the players try to attack someone?
The above three considerations need to be considered for every law the world may have. There are some, such as weapon carrying, that will also need to have accommodation systems in place (if I arrive there, do I give my weapons right at the gate or is the place I am staying at responsible after the gate keepers give me a 1 day pass).

You can also add more laws on top of the sections I listed to give each region or system their own identities. They can also be more specified. For example:
  • One city allows weapons to be carried but swords are reserved for the nobles. Anyone in violation faces fines but travellers can keep their weapons in the place they are staying without repercussion. Players can move weapons from one place to another (if they decide to switch inns for some reason, etc.) but need to carry a paper given when they entered the city.
  • There is a very strict class structure that involves certain colours being worn by certain classes in society. Breaking this results in fines and/or jail time. Travellers, not being part of any classes, can largely ignore them unless they own property in the area (owning property will make you part of society). Regardless, noble colours cannot be worn by travellers unless they are foreign nobles.


I believe the use of the above system to create legal systems has helped me create better worlds and has benefited my games. This is because it allows different areas to feel inherently different and puts explicit consequences on crimes that characters living in that world would know about, creating a sense of risk. The checks themselves to be discovered would need to be made on a per-crime basis, but this method has helped me and I hope it helps you as well. As always I'd love to hear if you agree or disagree. Happy holidays.  

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Dungeon Master: Creating Antagonists

When playing an adventure, there is some kind of adversary you are usually trying to overcome. Often times it is a big, ultra-powerful baddie that takes an entire campaign to kill. However, there are other ways to create antagonists for your players. I purposely avoid using villain here because, really, they may be perfectly respectable people and had the tables been turned, the hero of the story. As I am always interested in having antagonists ready to go (you never know when a game of D&D will break out), I will be talking about some major things I consider when creating antagonists as well as how the choices and planning can have wider reaching effects. The overall scope of this piece goes can be used in any kind of role-playing game and will focus on the character side of antagonists, instead of mechanics. I hope it helps.


The way the conflict is set up for the players will set the tone for the campaign being run, though this could be done intentionally as well. Very few would suspect the big bad lich hatching a plan for world domination using an army of unicorns. However, the choices made reach beyond that. When having players that like to experiment and think outside the box, I don't want to rail road them. However, general outlines still help in making the entire plot seem planned (though adhering to them strictly is usually a bad idea) and one element that stays relevant regardless is the personality of characters.

I will be going over a few specific elements I use to make an antagonist. When thinking about them, it is best to see them interacting together in forming the character of the antagonist.

Preliminary Considerations

When designing the personality of the antagonist, their strength can play a role in how things will run. Naturally, with an extremely powerful lich players will need to avoid direct contact. However, if the main baddie is actually a low level noble (as in level 5 when the party is level 9) who instead uses bodyguards and plotting as their strength, the dynamics change. Even though the personality of the antagonist in this case is separate from the outline of the adventure, their motivations and methods they use to achieve them have a significant effect. You can also try building them using the “Traits, Flaws and Bonds” stuff from this edition of Dungeons & Dragons, but I generally prefer to approach that kind of thing more generally (particularly for antagonists, that generally benefit from being more complex and deep. For less important characters, I've found “Traits, Flaws and Bonds” to allow for quick creation of characters). You could use that system on top of something like this (usually it isn't hard to pull them out of the below, but sometimes using a different system as a base and adding what is missing helps save time).

Motivations and Goals

The motivations and goals of the antagonist could be one of the most important parts of creating an antagonist. Simply, your players may not actually be 100% against a character in your world but only disagree on one specific issue (if your world is more politically based, this may happen more often). Once the current issue is resolved and a new one arises, it may make sense for the old antagonist and the players to be allies. Even if the motivations of your antagonist are completely against the characters (see lich trying to kill everything living), the antagonist's attention may not be on the players because the players have been careful not to be discovered or because the players have not actually acted against the antagonists motivations. This will naturally interact with the personality of the villain, as it will determine what they do if there is no hope of success in their goals anymore (do they fight the party to the death or surrender?).


The obvious part of creating the personality of an antagonist is thinking about their mannerisms as well as values. However, a character may have multiple motivations and goals that sometimes conflict. In such a case, deciding which goal is most important may fit into their personality (why is one goal more important?). It also helps me to break this into two different parts. Thinking about the mannerisms and outward actions of a character separate from their internal thoughts and decision making process can make sense for characters that lie a lot, for example. Even if they don't, making the decision that the character you created is perfectly honest is still an active decision between these two parts (even the almighty undead lich may have some secrets that are used internally for decisions but never mentioned externally). In one sentence, what does this character know, how do they make their decisions and how do they try to seem?

The methods the antagonist uses to advance towards their motivations are also extremely important. Your antagonist could be an honourable and good person, but their motivation puts them in direct conflict with the players. When I say methods, I also don't mean specifically how they wish to achieve their goal as this may change over time. What methods are off the table? What is this antagonist not willing to do in pursuit of their goals? If your antagonist starts noble and then gets progressively more evil as they become obsessed, this can change. Remembering this helps me take the correct actions in a scenario as well as help define boundaries for antagonists.

Other Things to Considerations

Since each antagonist is different, there may need to be special considerations. Examples include fears and special weaknesses. In both these cases, they will also feed back into the sections mentioned above but would be specific things under the “Preliminary Considerations” and “Personality” (they affect the strength of the character as well as their personality).

In a general sense, any character can be created using this kind of system but often times I find it too involves for character you may only see once (“Traits, Flaws and Bonds” work great for these in D&D 5th edition). If your game is taking place over the course of one battle where your characters are trying to survive and get their pay, the entire opposing army may be considered an “antagonist” and as such have their own goals (what they want to take) and personality (how is there morale and do they expect an easy fight).


I believe considering the strength, the motivations and goals as well as personality (mannerisms, outward actions and inner thoughts/decision systems) when creating antagonists is important. It helps ensure sure they are well defined and consistent. It can be used regardless of system and though is planned, can be done without railroading players. I hope this helped and if there is anything you wish to add, feel free to say so in the comments.


Evil Undead Lich

Preliminary Considerations: Very strong.

Motivations and Goals: Kill everything living. Avoid discovery. Stay alive (by which I mean undead).

Personality: Arrogant. Knowledgeable in arcane matters. Lacks business sense. Doesn't trust minions and prefers to do things itself if risk is small enough. Tries to allocate resources as optimally as possible (won't go after players until they actively oppose the lich). Nothing is off the table in terms of pursuit of goals. Will outright lie, including assuming identities. If goal cannot be accomplished, will leave while trying to cause as much damage to opposition (those that wrong it) as safely as possible. If choices needs to be made between its goals and its undead life, it chooses its undead life.


Preliminary Considerations: Weak. Strength comes from army of bodyguards. Always has at least two ranks of bodyguards in all directions when moving from place to place (assuming square grids, 24 guards). Probably built as low level rogue with emphasis on “noble” skills (if goal is to have players take them out, should be able to be reduced to 0 HP in less than a round).

Motivations and Goals: Get fame and fortune. Help those they deem as “worthy” get more prosperous. Stay alive as long as possible. Optional: Prevent enemy from damaging their kingdom/state.

Personality: Cowardly. Actively will delegate tasks they see as “below them” to other people. They will not actively try to kill or assassinate anyone, except in self-defence through their guards. Their preferred method always involves their goals being put forward and accomplished through the legal system. If confronted in combat, they will try to run away. Talks down to those not of royal blood or not within a profession they deem as acceptable (mainly successful merchants). Slightly paranoid about people trying to kill them (wears heavy armour, despite not having the strength for it), but trusts their guards and staff.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Dungeon Master: Morale Rules for Games Without Them

If you are anything like me, you don't want every fight to be a fight to the death. If a group of kobolds had half of their ranks killed in a single round, maybe they won't stand to the last. A unit of guards, ambushed at night and unable to see their attackers, may have some of their numbers route while part still chooses to hold their ground. The way to manage these situations used to be a morale system, where every monster had a morale rating that described their relative bravery. What I particularly liked about this implementation was that it removed bravery and morale from the ability scores and allowed modifiers to be applied. Since 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons lacks this, I will look over several systems that can be used and how they could be implemented in 5th edition. As discussed, they can be used in any tabletop role-playing game that lacks such a system.

Current and Older Rules

So far, 5th edition D&D does not have such a system in place. There is a morale rule presented in the Dungeon Master's Guide, but since it is an optional rule it is not very detailed. It also linked morale to an ability score. That being said, those of us who have old Monster Manuals (I personally liked 2nd editions method with ratings and rolls against those ratings) and other books can use the older morale systems. In the case of systems like 2nd edition (where there are morale ratings), a Dungeon Master may need to make up a rating themselves. Naturally, creatures with very low morale will be easier for players to beat and as a result the experience players gain could be considered “overly generous” (something to keep in mind).


A few details need to be worked out when trying to design a system like this. First, does a lower morale rating mean they are bravery or more cowardly? Historically, higher rating means braver. If you roll above the morale rating, the creature is frightened (so for a D20, a morale rating of 20 can never be frightened. This is what I will use later in this piece). Of course, you could say you are frightened if you meet or exceed the rating (meaning that a morale rating of 21 is never frightened). You can also treat it as a save, so a 1 (or 0, if 1 is always considered a fail. In this case, you would never roll for a 0 DC) would be the bravest morale rating since any roll on a D20 would meet that DC.

Touched on the above is if you meet the morale level, do is the creature frightened or not? For the remaining of this piece, I will assume that if your roll equals the morale rating of a creature, it is not frightened. You could just add a rating of one higher than the highest roll.

Purposed General Rule

  • Select the kind of distribution you want as well as how many points you want. If you want it flat, do a single dice such as a D20. If you want something more bell shaped, use multiple dice (2D10, 2D6, 3D6, etc.).
  • Choose a max morale rating. Skeletons won't run away since, you know, they are dead and don't fear for their lives. In this case, take the maximum of all of the dice you chose and make that the highest morale rating (remember, if you roll higher than this number, the creature is frightened).
  • Assign a rating to every creature based on how brave you feel it should be on average (this can be a range based on rolling morale. See below for this).
  • At proper times (as chosen by the Dungeon Master), roll morale. If you roll higher than the rating, creature tries to run etc.

Morale Based on Context

One side effect of having no morale system at all or having a morale system as an optional component (see most versions of D&D, as they suggest that situations and context should play the major role) is that it means you can improvise when needed. A very common situation I find myself in is adjusting morale based on context (there is no way I want to make a full table of bonuses and penalties to morale. They won't be accurate for any situation anyway). This means that instead of thinking of morale as a system of the game, you can think of it on an adventure to adventure basis. Examples include:
  • When leader is killed, everyone surrenders.
  • When leader is killed, roll a D6 for each conscious creature. If they roll lower than 3, they surrender. If they roll a 3, they try to run away. If they roll higher than 3, they fight to the last.
  • If enemies makes it to within 20 feet of big bad leader, he tries to run. If half or more of his bodyguards are killed, he tries to run.
In such cases, the morale considerations would need to be imbedded in the adventure a long with the description of the room/location. The adventure would also need to be generally planned in advance or the Dungeon Master would need to make up such situations on the spot (“Purposed General Rule” above may be easier to apply for consistency, though the general morale ratings would need to be planned in advance or made up on the spot).

A side note is that with this kind of system, every confrontation would need to be considered. You can reuse elements you used in the past, but it would be less centralized than having a general system.

Hybrid Solution by Combining the Above

You can of course combine the two solutions together. This usually means that you have a general system in place (like “Purposed General Rule”), but the actual morale rating and times when rolls occur is based on the context.

Another alternative is that there is a general list of times the Dungeon Master always rolls for morale and the situation may add more to the list, as well as screw the morale up or down.

Finally, you can choose to apply a general system in situations morale isn't specified and apply situational rules (ignoring the general rules) when an adventure mentions them (this is usually used when running a published adventure).

Rolling Morale

Instead of choosing an exact morale for a creature, you can choose to create typical ranges (certain specimens may be braver or much more cowardly still). To do so:
  • Select the lowest rating on average you will have (e.g. 8)
  • Select the highest rating on average you will have (e.g. 13)
  • Take the difference of the highest and lower (e.g. 13 – 8 = 5)
  • Create some kind of dice method to get those numbers (1D6 – 1 for an even distribution, 2D6/2 – 1 for a less even distribution, etc.).


Morale systems and ways to determine when monsters run isn't an easy topic and can be done in many different ways. Depending what makes the most sense or is easiest to work with, choices can be made. Though there is only basic rules given in 5th edition, more complex systems can still be used quite easily (as well as other role-playing games that lack a morale system). I hope the above helps. If there is anything I missed or you wish to mention, please feel free to comment.  

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Retrospective

Now that all of the core books have been released for the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, I thought it was a great time to look back and reflect on the new edition. I've also had more time to play and find issues in this edition, which I will talk about below as well as some house rules I considered.

How It's Awesome

In general, I found low-level play a blast with very few complains (up to level 10 or so). I thought that in general the classes are fairly well balanced while still being mechanically different. I particularly liked the extremely deadly first level, as it meant that tactics played an incredibly important part. The reduction in the number of magic items players received (or even need) allowed me to run several long spanning games with no magic items at all and still have them be effective at their level. The idea of bounded accuracy is in my opinion a good one. Its use throughout the system allows you to challenge and injure even high level players using lower level enemies. It also allows mobs to be effective while at the same time go down easily as well as the party to be starved of resources. The game itself is quite easy to house rule, modify and improvise on using simple ability scores. The books are generally high quality as well, with tons of nice art and they even provide the basic rules for free.

High-level Play Issues

In general, the majority of problems I saw ended up happening at higher levels. An example is cantrip spell damage scaling with level (I personally hate this as it means a first level spell does less than a cantrip). I like having a general sense of balance between classes, even if the balance is asymmetrical. In general, I found the rules did a decent job of this. Naturally, though, for classes like the Wizards, any kind of unbalances come from not the class itself but the spells they have access to. There are a few spells that scale with level but not with spell slot (hold person is the biggest problem), meaning that for a rather low level slot they can cause great effects to even high level characters. The DC's of Wizard spells also scales regardless of the ability score it targets, while the other classes do not get their proficiency bonus added unless they are proficient in those saves (as determined by their class, plus one feat). The Wizard, however, has spells to give themselves higher Armour Class (AC). The rogue (who need stealth or a party member to be effective), with their proficiency, expertise and inability to roll under 10 when taking checks seem to always surprise enemies unless the opponents use magic or have rogue like proficiency and expertise in perception (combined with the Assassin archetype, on average does incredible damage against non-constitution based characters). They also, because of the inability to roll lower than 10 and massive bonuses either can't fail to disarm a trap or pick a lock, or the Dungeon Master has to place very high DC's (whether this is a problem or what makes sense is up to you, but I felt it noteworthy. It is definitely not as significant as always surprising enemies).


I don't like the default +1 to all attributes for humans, when it looks like most others get a feat or two worth of bonuses. Luckily, there is the optional rule that uses a feat instead. This kind of customization in general is really nice to see.


My biggest problem with the system, however, comes from the subclasses. I don't even know how many characters I've had at my table so far but I don't remember seeing one Champion fighter. Similarly, every ranger I have seen so far was a Hunter. Maybe it is just me but some choices seem to be significantly worse than others when it comes to subclasses or class features, meaning that they don't get picked. The obvious answer to this is to either remove classes the Dungeon Master doesn't like or to give the classes that the Dungeon Master feels are lacking something extra to make them more even.


I have one or two really small nitpicking things, such monster attacks that age characters (since this is another incentive not to play an older character and effects humans harder than dwarves), which I am tempted to just ignore. The other main nitpick I had was with no fleeing choice given to players in the default rules. I can add my own, take it from a different edition or take it from the Dungeon Master's Guide. However, having the players not know how running away works by default seems strange to me, in a system that seems to be closer to the older editions, where you could run into a fight you couldn't win. I also still miss the morale system of older editions and how each creature had a morale rating to tell how brave it was (those of you with older books can use it just fine, though cross referencing is a little bit annoying), but I'm convinced most people don't care about it.

The traits, flaws and bonds system adds a more structured way to create characters to role-play but more veteran groups may find themselves ignoring it, particularly because some things don't fit neatly into those categories, forcing you to repeat things in different wording in each section (which, admittedly, can be a good way to explore your character). I tried to use it at first but ended up throwing it out, as I found it too mechanical for what my group tended to do already. The ease of throwing it out, however, is more a testament to the system and how easy it is to modify.

House Ruling

However, I noticed that in general it is quite easy to house rule the problems I had with the system. The monsters also generally follow the same rules (except a couple that get multiple attacks before the players do), meaning house rules carry through the entire system.

House Rules

  • Cantrips don't scale.
  • You can't take expertise in stealth or perception as a rogue.
  • Starting at level 5, monsters and players get half their proficiency bonus to saves they are not proficiency in, rounding down (to make this fair, this includes monsters). To make the increases more even, you can just always give half proficiency, but this will make Wizards worse pre-5th level.

Bolded points are proposed house rules that I'm not too sure about, as they cause large changes to certain classes.

The above half proficiency rule means assuming even levels and a score of 10 in the attribute targeted, target has 25% change to resist, while targets proficiency in the save still keep their old rating. The odds of resisting an effect decrease with level, but more slowly than currently.


In general, I enjoyed playing this new version of D&D, particularly at low level. There are some issues in my view but they are workable and the overall system has so far been easy for me to house rule. Overall, the flexibility and ease of play is something I have enjoyed greatly. There is still room for customization through feats, but at low levels the class choice, ability scores, skills, backgrounds and role-playing (traits, flaws and bonds) provide most of the distinctions between characters.