Sunday, 27 December 2015

Dungeon Master: Small Player Character Groups

A little while ago I wrote a little bit about the benefits, draw backs and difficulties of having large group of player characters (even possibly giving players more than one character). However, there is the other extreme as well. Having fewer player characters provides its own opportunities and drawbacks and I hope to talk about a few of those as well as a few solutions.

Why Bother?

I Don't Want to Play Multiple Characters

Some people just prefer to play one character and get immersed in that role. In those kinds of situations, though there may be benefits to having a player play more than one character, it would detract from the player's experience. In these kinds of cases, there are other ways to still give some of the benefits of multiple characters while also respecting the player's wish to play one character.

A More Heroic Feeling

There are many people who would say that fighting a group of 12 undead feels a lot more heroic if there are 2 players than if there were a full party of 4 (or 8, 2 for each player). Honestly, I'd agree with them in general principle (the types of undead matter too).

How to Implement It?


We have two characters. No problem, we can just scale the adventure to the same difficulty but to two players. On paper this sounds fine and will provide players with a challenge. However, it will also be less dynamic of an encounter (there are less enemies) and the Dungeon Master will need to do some weird things to certain encounters, especially when facing a boss like encounter (the encounter makes sense with a dragon so we can't easily swap it out but the players are too weak and as a result the Dungeon Master will be forced to modify the stats). This will obviously not be a problem if you are making the adventure from scratch yourself. Even the problem of less dynamic encounters can be solved by having higher level PCs though some concerns still exist (you can't through an army of skeletons against a cleric who was turn undead that destroys undead and there will be holes in party roles).


There's an obvious solution to the problems of scaling. If you only have 2 players and they wish to tackle an adventure meant for 4 characters, they can play the adventure with characters that are higher level. Doing this can provide a great sense of power for the players while at the same time the large amounts of enemies makes death a real possibility. The problem with this kind of approach is that it takes quite a bit of skill to pull off. The math for doing this is usually provided in the rule books (compare difficulty at suggested level to charts for higher level characters), however, a party of 2 characters will have holes in their abilities compared to a full party. They may lack healing magic. They may lack arcane magic. They may lack a stealthy guy. They may lack a heavily armored bag of hit points. As a result, some adjusting on the fly may be needed. When done from scratch

Two Characters in One

Up until now I've gone over solutions that work within the rules. However, there's another solution. A player character can be allowed to be 2 classes (in a classless system, do the equivalent of granting double health, roles, etc.) at once and level in both classes at once (at the Dungeon Master's discretion, they can be the same class twice). This way, they have the hit points of two characters. You can also give the character two actions, two reactions and two bonus actions (I leave it at 1 move action because otherwise players are as fast as warhorses). I'd also suggest tracking actions per class (mainly to prevent hilarious action surge and spell combos). For role-play, it counts as one character. In combat, it's essentially two characters grafted together (when thinking about the rules, it should be considered this way).

Naturally, doing this has some major concerns. Synergies that were never possible before suddenly become possible. Can a player take the fighter class twice (if so, can they action surge twice in one “turn”, since now they get two turns interlaced together)? Do you let them take the same fighting style twice (treating it as two characters grafted together, even though this allows for a higher AC?)? Doing this essentially creates a brand new rule system that the Dungeon Master now has to rule on (not being a published, ruling will need to happen more often). If done correctly it allows the Dungeon Master to run a published adventure as written (for a few sessions I tried running this kind of monstrosity and played in such house rule systems before with great). It also gives the players a general feeling of tremendous power.


There we have the reasons for having smaller parties and some ways to implement them in role-playing, but specifically D&D 5th edition. The solution under “Two Characters in One” is something I'd only recommend experienced Dungeon Masters or Dungeon Masters who are ready to essentially make their own system attempt. However, there is still much fun to be had when playing with a smaller party. As always, feel free to comment and I'd especially like to hear other solutions and suggestions for this kind of situation.  

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Dungeon Master: Themes

I mentioned a little while ago how themes can play a role in encounter design. However, theme is a rather big general concept that applies to more than just encounters. I obviously won't be able to cover everything, but I hope I can at least give a general idea of what it means to consider themes as well as some quick tips.

Not Too General and Not Too Specific

First, care needs to taken to find a good theme. Something like, “good vs. evil”, is a start but I'd say it's a bit too general to inspire me for a campaign. Something too specific will leave the Dungeon Master with many situations where they can't use their themes or will require many themes (too many themes becomes too hard to remember). When I talk about theme, I'm not talking about some rule that has to be followed at all times by the Dungeon Master. Instead, it is a central idea that helps inspire the Dungeon Master. For example, “the difference between good and evil is in their motivation”, is an example of a theme that tends to inspire. Always been running evil liches? Well, with that theme I can have a good lich that became a lich for noble reasons. The real strength in good themes is that they give you a quick framework to work off of when you improvise.


When I start planning a new campaign, I usually start with the themes. As I expressed before, this generally helps with unpredicted situations where the Dungeon Master needs to make a call, but it still needs to be consistent with the world. However, I find it also helps in other situation such as NPC creation and encounter design, because it gives me a starting point. It's also important that it is meant to help you, so if you think of a really cool encounter but it doesn't fit into your theme, that's fine. The theme is meant to be a tool. I typically aim for 3 good themes. For example, we could have “good and evil are indistinguishable”, “enough money can buy anything”, and “magic can be dangerous and unpredictable”. You will probably end up thinking about the setting and story as you think about the theme. That's actually a very good thing because all of those elements should mesh together.

Combat Encounters

Combat encounters tend to be a little more hit and miss when it comes to themes. However, themes can still inspire combat encounters or solutions to combat encounters. Using the themes from the “Campaigns” section, we can decide that the party could actually hire the mercenaries that are about to attack as bodyguards if they paid enough. We could also decide to have a 3 way fight as all three groups compete for the same prize but for different motivations. Again, themes aren't a rule. They are a tool for the Dungeon Master.


Characters can fall into the more general themes we discussed. We can also think of a theme or a single quote to help inspire us when talking about a character. I find quotes about a character work well for this. Something like, “ever seen a man get so angry over cold soup that he slammed his fists onto the table and broke the table's leg?” helps inspire and create the character and could even be powerful enough that you can create the character with nothing else to go by (I find having a bunch of these, along with names, ready to go help me come up with characters on the spot). It may not encompass the entire character (is he clever?), but it helps me as a starting point.  

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Dungeon Master: Ask Why

Someone recently asked me what my advice would be for a new Dungeon Master. I thought about it for a second and came up with the advice, “ask why” (if you don't, your players will). I realized I never really tackled this before but I felt it is worth writing down, especially since those two words are deceptively simple. The idea is that if the Dungeon Master at least considers this question, things will make sense. 

Why Are the Players Playing?

As a Dungeon Master, I find knowing what my players like and why they want to play lets me be a better Dungeon Master. A party that wants role-playing would be disappointed with dungeon after dungeon. However, there are people who really do like dungeon delving (think Indiana Jones but with more undead). Since it's a group, you could have both people at once. However, identifying this and knowing why they play will let you address that and make things more fun for your players.

Why Are the Characters Here?

Why are the players in Baldur's Gate? Why did the villain pick this spot for their secret plan? Why are the characters going to the Dungeon? The answers to these will depend on the situation. Some parties I've seen need no other reason than the possibility of valuable loot to go to a deadly dungeon. Others need a noble quest to risk their lives for. It's also important to consider these questions for enemies. For unintelligent undead, this question is easy (“I am here because evil powers rose me from the grave as an undead creature that has been ordered to protect this room”). However, for intelligent creatures, this question can be far more elaborate and complex. It may even determine how a fight ends (if they think they can't accomplish their goal, would they fight to the death?).

Other Examples of Why

Why Is This Room Here?

If there is a room in a creature created area, there should be a reason for it. This should be true even if it isn't made by a creature but is currently used by a creature (a cave complex). You should be able to explain what it is used for and why the creature is there (was carved by water and the creature thought it made a good home). It also helps if you have a gameplay reason as well as an in world reason for a room since at the end of the day the game should be fun.

Why Is This Dungeon Here?

Usually easier to explain, but helps avoid the castle in a completely useless position problem. Just try not to forget this detail and don't be surprised if players ask.

Why Is This Evil Guy Evil?

The title kind of says it all this time. The evil guy needs a reason for being evil that makes sense (I think even a straightforward, “I'm undead and hate life” is better than nothing).

Why Is This NPC Helping?

NPCs have lives of their own too (which the Dungeon Master completely controls). If an NPC is helping the players, there should be a good reason behind it (though sometimes that reason will be an evil one). 

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Dungeon Master: Designing a Combat Encounter

Designing combat encounters that are fun, interesting and challenging is not easy. I don't claim to be perfect at it, but I hope that I can at least help a few people by sharing my general method for thinking about combat encounters. It will be high level so that it can be used for any system.


The concept of time and timing is an important part of plotting a campaign. For that reason, it is a far broader topic than I will cover today. Still, the timing can have a great deal of impact on a combat encounter. For the purposes of this piece, I don't mean the physical time (night, day and visibility in general could be considered as part of the environment) but instead the timing of elements in the encounter and the timing of the encounter in regards to the campaign itself. A showdown with the villain may actually be 3 encounters where in the first encounter the players are just trying to escape, in the second one they will try to escape but first do something that will inhibit the villain, and in the third and final one will be when they finally win (the timing in the campaign that these encounters happen can contribute to the tension and excitement). It's also important to note that not every enemy needs to be there at the start of an encounter. They can call for reinforcements instead, which can make combat easier but also more dynamic (4 soldiers followed by 4 reinforcements in 3 rounds is easier to deal with than 8 soldiers at once).


In a campaign, there will be an overall theme. I won't go into too much detail here today, but themes that can be incorporated into an encounter help tie it into the rest of the world. If themes are broken, it can even be jarring (though sometimes that is the aim). It can include things such as enemy types (undead, for example), locations and ways combat will play out (do you reward retreats?).

Now that I got the context out of the way, let's talk about designing the encounter itself.

The Players

The composition of the party as well as their general experience will play a role in what is considered a good encounter. If the players are too inexperienced, an encounter designed for experience players may be too difficult for them. At the same time, some encounters that end up being fairly dynamic for one party may break down because of certain abilities or strategies a different party could employ. When designing an encounter, be careful to consider possible holes that the party has that may make things harder than you intend (missing healing, magic, etc.). Also note the strengths of the party, their general experience and their ability to think outside the box.

The Enemies

The things that the party will fight will contribute to how dynamic the fight is. Mixing different abilities together can create completely new situations for players to tackle even without considering other factors. As the Dungeon Master, you can also add a couple of modifications to the creatures to change things up a bit (maybe some enemies will use nets, or there's an eldritch knight who uses teleportation to get close to wizards). That's not to say that a crowd of kobolds can't be fun to fight. However, if they've been doing this for multiple encounters in a row, some variety may help (even if it's through a wizard kobold).

The Environment

Fighting in an open plane is distinctly different to fighting in a 20 foot by 20 foot room which is distinctly different than fighting on a 10 foot across bridge. Thinking and implementing good environments is partially an art. However, at the very least cover and elevation need to be considered. Both of these are instrumental in breaking up static strategies (fighters block the tunnel). It's also important to make sure the baddies you populated the environment with use the environment to their advantage if they are intelligent or don't at all if they are unintelligent. You can also throw in a couple of unique features into your environment. Teleporting environment features are a good example, since they help break up the usual environment and break the rules. I've also seen special material deposits that reflect magic, make magic weaker or even empower magic. The point it to consider how the environment will change tactics and to use it to make combat more interesting (this also means that there needs to be a benefit to using the environment in creative ways or at the very least it should be memorable).


I previously mentioned reinforcements coming after 3 rounds. That would be an example of what I call a twist. It also related to timing but there is no problem with multiple parts of my model overlapping. In my model, a twist is a feature of the encounter that is outside the enemies, players and environment that helps make the combat different. An earthquake every 1d4 rounds is an example (it may sound close to environment and ideally all of the elements should combine together to make a seamless whole, but I tend to consider the environment as a bit more static). It could be a plot point as well (big bad wizard turns out to be a big bad lich wizard in disguise). The most common thing, however, is to add some kind of goal besides beating the other guys. Interrupting a ritual, chasing after a certain character, or even destroying the entire room could all be used to change the flow of combat (obviously, if the players are trying to bring the entire place down it will be a different experience than just beating the bad guys). The twist, depending what it is, could make the encounter easier or harder (bringing down an entire temple by knocking out the support pillars could make it easier since the players wouldn't need to defeat all the cultists, or could make it harder because of how hard a pillar is to destroy and that more shadows will come until the temple is destroyed). It could also be a non-combat puzzle that needs to be accomplished to seal away the demons (I'm quite fond of non-combat + combat encounters).


I hope my model of using time and theme as considerations as well as the players, enemies, environment and twists helps plan, analyze and inspire combat encounters. It is still challenging to come up with dynamic and memorable encounters, but I think every little bit helps. As always, feel free to comment.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Dungeon Master: Subtle Magic Effects

Occasionally players may find themselves facing off against someone whose knowledge of magic is greater than theirs. In such cases a question that comes up often is how to handle the description of spells cast by the more powerful wizard. There is no question with the big, flashy spells. However, some of the subtler spells would be harder to determine until the effect takes place (for example, if a wizard casts haste on someone and that person doesn't move).

Piecing Together the Spell

An optional rule for this kind of situation could be that a character knowledgeable in magic can try to figure out the effect of a spell by making a check while it is being cast. The harder part to decide is when such a check would be required. At the very least, a wizard should be able to recognize the spells they know. However, at there could be many spells of a given level that a character doesn't know. In those cases, we can have two variants.

Variant 1: When a spell is being cast that a magic class character does not know, they can make a DC 10 + level of the spell arcana check to determine the effect the spell is about to have.

Variant 2: When a spell of a higher level than a magic class character knows is cast, the character can make a DC 10 + level of the spell arcana check to determine the effect the spell is about to have.

Variant B: The above variants but use a DC of 10 + proficiency + modifier.

I tend to use variant 2 + B.

Frequency of Use

The variants above generally assume that the characters won't be facing characters much higher level than them very often (if this isn't true, these kinds of rolls will happen more often). It also assumes that a lower level wizard would be able to determine what spell is being cast through their arcana knowledge, even when they cannot cast it themselves. If either of these assumptions proves problematic, it may be a good idea for the Dungeon Master to use a more restricted version of the rules.

There examples of spells that allow for multiple effects (right now this is mostly for house rules). The rule can be adapted to only apply to these kinds of spells instead to reduce the number of these kinds of rolls. This kind of rule needs to be carefully applied in order to prevent the game slowing down. As an alternative, the Dungeon Master can keep more in their arsenal as a more random occurrence instead of a rule to still allow for it to be used when needed while not being used all the time (weird spells, as below, is an example of this, though more rigid in the way it is applied).

Weird Spells

I've seen situations where certain wizards have special spells that they came up with. In these cases, particularly when the spell is more subtle, it can be hard to determine and react to the spell when it is cast. Instead, the effect of the spell needs to be revealed with time. In such cases, this kind of rule could apply to just the weird spells of this spell caster. I've also seen examples where a necromancer, for example, will have modified spells in their disposal (a fireball ends up being a ball of necromatic energy). These situations can be hard for the characters because these spells may not even be available for them. In these kinds of cases, this kind of rule could apply (knowing it's a modified fireball can help players make inferences about the number of spell slots left for the wizard, etc.).

Ritual Magic

It is important to realize that ritual magic is also magic. In these cases, this kind of rule gives a straight forward and consistent way to determine the intention of a ritual or the remnants of a ritual site (circles, components, etc.). Even there is hesitation to apply this rule in combat it can still be used as a Dungeon Master tool during dungeon construction to decide DCs.  

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Dungeon Master: Defense Wizard

A while ago I wrote a sample villain (you can read the old article here). However, Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition allows for multiple different kinds of wizards through arcane traditions. As an example, I will modify the stats and character of Sator Ivertillion to be in line with the School of Abjuration.


Level 5 Wizard
Ability Score
Strength 10
Dexterity 10
Constitution 9
Intelligence 11
Wisdom 10
Charisma 18
Hit points: 17 (using averages)
Skills: Arcana, Insight, Deception, Persuasion
Proficiency Bonus: +3
Armor Class: 10 without mage armor, 13 with mage armor

The above ensure though he is a level 5, the spell save DC for his spells is 11. This gives even a level 2 player a chance to survive a spell, though it is still an incredibly deadly situation to be in for the level 2 party. His low health also makes it possible to kill for a low level party, especially when surprise is gained as well.

To make the difference even more pronounced, the School of Abjuration perks from the Player's Handbook can be applied up to level 5 (other schools can be used for different kinds of wizards). In fact, I'd argue that those kinds of differences make it far more unique for the characters. It also acts as a way to show the feasibility of certain class builds if for some reason your players are avoiding them, though this should never be the main reason. Instead, I find that the novelty of the character and combat encounter should be the main reason (we don't want combat to be too static).

Playing Them

In this case, playing the character as a coward is the most straight forward way and also the potentially most memorable if your players are used to aggressive combat encounters. Similar to previously, this character will avoid combat if they can by using their deception and persuasion skills. However, in this case they should be more likely to lie in order to avoid combat. At the same time, this character should be far less willing to die for their goal.

When running combat with this character, spells should be used when possible to boost the character's allies and help prevent damage. They should still have one offensive spell just in case but it should be quite significantly weak. The first spell should be something defensive that benefits the caster such as mage armor, and the first move should be used moving into a place that will give them cover if it is possible.

Of particular importance to have this character's combat style mirror their personality is the use of reactions. Since they are meant to be a coward, a dispel magic or shield spell should be cast regardless of how much damage may be done. It also gives the players a way to lock down the character, though they will need a magic and martial character to work together or two magic characters (to use up the reaction).

At the same time, this character should be very willing to flee if things are not going their way. If they get too hurt during the combat, they should also try to flee (the low hit points and AC means that the players still have a fairly good chance of dropping them and the low other scores mean that the players have a good chance of catching up in a chase).

The character can still be played as brave. In this case their main role would be to help their allies and to limit the effectiveness of other magic users.


There we have another wizard to drop into games as a villain. The other schools can be employed in much the same way but the tactics of the wizard will need to change to incorporate the school. As always, feel free to bring up any questions.  

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Dungeons & Dragons: Harried in Hillsfar

Since I wrote about the free adventure that was in issue 4 of Dragon+, it's probably a good time for me to talk about the free adventure in issue 3 (yes, there was a free adventure there) called Harried in Hillsfar. As usually, I'll go over the general structure, problems and what can be scavenged.

Overall Structure

This adventure is really 5 separate adventures that can be used independently or combined together. Each one is shorter than the adventure in issue 4, but they can be combined to create a bigger adventure (be careful of order since 2 in particular work better when done in the right order). When done so, they are not as closely connected as you might like but at the same time it works to showcase a wide scope of things (I think it could work quite nicely as a lead into Rage of Demons). Naturally there's quite a bit of combat but there is also a lot of room for role-playing (a good portion of which will need to be thought up by the Dungeon Master or improvised).


This adventure has a few problems with it though none are that major.
  1. There are two handouts listed but only one provided (you'll need to rewrite the coloured text yourself or white out the black text)
  2. Though information is provided to tie the adventures together on the handout, the role-play alternative is barely touched on and will take some time for the DM to develop
  3. Some strange typos will force you to reread parts of the adventures (nothing too weird but it is quite distracting)

What Can Be Scavenged

The adventures are demon themed to fit as an introduction to the Rage of Demons story line. However, undead and demons being a common enemy in D&D, it makes it fairly easy to recycle if running that kind of campaign. Some of the adventures even come with puzzles or riddles that add to the general aesthetic and can be ran as is without heavy modification (adventures 4 and 5 are the best example of this) since they are more tied to demons than they are a specific feature of the adventure. The riddle rooms can be lifted exactly and thrown into other adventures quite easily. You could probably combine adventure 4 and 5 into one bigger adventure quite successfully as well (trap door in the church).

Overall Opinion

I found these adventures a lot more enjoyable than Shackles of Blood. It's partially due to the riddles (which aren't too hard and all have a less desirable alternative if necessary) and to the overall atmosphere, but I found them to be quite enjoyable. Some parts, especially where role-play is concerned, will need a bit of polish but I don't think that is too much of a big deal (it's hard to provide a good balance for role-playing sections since most times players will go in a different direction than the adventure provides, even if only slightly). It also seems quite to expand and work into other adventures. Have fun and give it a shot. You can't go wrong with free.

2016/10/09: Fixed issue as pointed out by comment. I had coloured and black text reversed in the problem section. 

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Dungeons & Dragons: Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide Review

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

  • Lots of full colour art (as we have come to expect of this edition)
  • Lots of maps
  • Lots of fluff and descriptions about the different areas and people there
  • The mechanical stuff doesn't break the game
  • New backgrounds with setting ties that are easy to adopt to other settings are provided

Could Go Either Way:
  • It's focuses on the Forgotten Realms (if you like the forgotten realms, this is a major plus and if not it's a con)
  • New paths for classes are provided (if you don't like creep, you may not like this) though they are not game breaking and will be too few for some to justify the purchase just for mechanics
  • For the list price, it's a bit short
  • No PDF*

* Denotes nitpicking.
Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide cover
The front cover of Sword Coast's Adventurer's Guide.


Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide has been released for the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Inside its 159 pages is information about races, options, backgrounds and locations for use with the Forgotten Realms. Personally, I think those who are interested in the Forgotten Realms will appreciate this book. Being no stranger to the Forgotten Realms myself, I enjoyed reading this book. Still, I had a couple of issues. For more depth, just read below or jump to the conclusion for a high level overview. Table of contents is here.

The Internals

New Mechanics and Rules

Inside this book are different mechanical options for players. At least one (deep gnomes) of these have already been featured in other adventures though I didn't notice much reuse beyond that. It's nice to have everything together in one book and yes, they did seem to be consistent with the previously published material. Most of it, however, is new. Anything I didn't like seemed to be easy to house rule as well and it mostly had to do with fluff (I'm looking at you, spiked armour).

Going in no particular order, we have some new backgrounds. Now, personally, I feel like backgrounds are probably some of the easiest things for a Dungeon Master to create in this edition. Still, it's nice to have some new ones written down and they generally seemed to be in line with the previously published ones (I'm a bit scared of power creep so this is important to me). They also tend to have links to the Sword Coast world which is nice to see (this will take some slight house ruling for other settings but it will be only slight).

We had some new material provided for the classes. There weren't any completely new classes, but some new options where provided (by options I mean domains for clerics, martial archetypes for fighters, etc.). Many different classes get attention here (strangely rangers don't) and I didn't have any concerns for almost all of the paths provided. There's one or two which make me a bit nervous (bladesinger is one of them) but if they are a little bit better than the rest, it isn't by much. The exception is Way of the Long Death but it's easy to increase the number of ki points needed to make it in line with the rest. I find myself occasionally making NPCs by following the character creation rules so any of them I feel may be too good for the players I could always use for my NPCs anyway (and adjusting the encounter to be fair, of course) but it's still nice to see that my players get some new options too.

Finally, we have a big list of races that exist within the forgotten realms. Mechanically, there isn't too much here. Some races get a couple of new variations which are in line with what we have seen so far. However, while I am breaking my format a bit here, there is far more for the races than mechanics. Many of them have fairly long explanations of their place in the world, histories, and unique features. There are even Forgotten Realms scripts provided for races such as humans, elves and dwarves (which means we are missing the exotic scripts Celestial, Infernal and Draconic, though we still have the Draconic script from the Player's Handbook).

Overall, it's rather light on the mechanics which honestly I tend to prefer at this point (lots of mechanics across many books scares me). I could see how some might be disappointed with how few there are, though. 

The Writing

If you are getting this book, it is probably for the writing. Lists of gods are given for the players (those Forgotten Realms veterans already know that there are quite a few gods in the Forgotten Realms), and histories of the world are provided. I knew most of what was in the book due to playing in the Forgotten Realms, but I still enjoyed reading it. Even when new options aren't given to a class or race, information on their roles in the world are provided.

Ever wonder how they measure time? It's covered. What about holidays and festivals? It's covered. Systems of government along the Sword Coast? Check. There's quite a nice range of topics covered and I found them to be a good read. It seems like it would work as a fairly decent reference. It does feel a bit short though. Almost like we could easily have 50 pages or even twice the content in exchange for a bigger price. Still, there were some pretty good deals out there that should help make the book tempting. 

The majority of the writing is good, but the part where this book really stood out for me was the descriptions of the locations through the Sword Coast. There is an emphasis that this is your Forgotten Realms and you should change it to be what you want it to be. Even when describing a location, the book does not speak from a position of authority. Instead, that portion of the book is written as a collection of accounts from informants and it really makes it seem stronger for me. It's evocative but not completely authoritative. It's how I feel that kind of section should be done.

The Art and Book Build Quality

Sword Coast map from Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide
One of the maps inside Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide. There are others, and they also look good. They are also in a similar style. 

I found the art throughout this book to be quite nice, though it probably has my least favourite cover so far. The maps and objects are done really nicely in this book, though scaling is missing on the maps. Out of all of the Faerun gods mentioned in the list, almost all of them have an illustration of their symbol (I only counted 3 without illustrations) and they look great (my personal favourite is Jergal's symbol though I can't think of one that looked bad). I tend to be quite picky when it comes to depictions of people and prefer a realistic art style. Even so, there were quite a few pieces of art involving people that I liked in this book.

The book itself is in the same style as the rest in this edition. Everything from the pages to the spine makes it fit perfectly when standing on the book shelf. The pages themselves are in a style that makes them look like they are from an in-game book, complete with fake creases close to the edge of the page. It's nice, and I generally appreciate these kinds of details (they also blend really well with the style of the maps, which look like they are lifted straight out of Faerun).


The good news is that the pages in my copy were straight. The bad news is that out of all of the books I have of this edition, the binding is the worst. This is especially true for the first page and last page (look at the picture below to see what I mean). Still, I've been reading it and it seems to be staying together securely though it has been worrying me a bit. It also looks like two of the pages in my copy were stuck together with glue and when separated caused a small part of the surface of the page to be ripped out. It's barely noticeable but I feel it's worth noting and looking out for. I'm also not sure how common those kinds of things are for this run of the book.
Binding on the last page of the book
The binding on the last page of the book. 


The best prices I could find doing a quick search were $23.77 at Barnes and Noble in the US (Amazon has the same price) and $31.94 at Chapters in Canada. 

What I felt was Missing

Again, we are missing a PDF. A reference like this would have made a perfect candidate for a PDF. Also, I would have liked to see all of the script types mentioned in the Player's Handbook (including exotic) included in the book. Fonts being provided would have also been nice so that we Dungeon Masters could use the ones that are here in our handouts. This wasn't done for the Player's Handbook either, but I still feel it's worth mentioning. 


Overall, this is a resource and reference for Dungeon Masters who will be running games on the Sword Coast. It does what you would expect with its 159 pages. It has generally good art, a lot of good information describing the Sword Coast and is a bit light on mechanics. If you don't like the Forgotten Realms, you might still be tempted to buy the book just for the extra player options though as mentioned, it's a bit light on them. However, I'd say the main reasons to get the book are for the art and writing. It may be hard to justify buying this book if you already have a lot of old Forgotten Realms stuff. It's also not a must own book, especially if you prefer your own setting. Still, it's a good addition to this edition, and Forgotten Realms fans as well as new people to the game who want to learn more about the world they have been playing in through the adventures should be happy (especially if you find a lower price online and prefer description over mechanics since it is shorter and mostly descriptions). If you heard that there was going to be a Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide and thought, “Cool”, you will be happy. Just be on the lookout for that binding if you can.

Other Stuff
  • Reading over this book, I don't remember many typos

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Dungeons & Dragons: Shackles of Blood

Free adventures are always nice. Even if you don't like every part, there is usually something that can be taken and use. In the newest issue of Dragon+ Wizards of the Coast have given us a pdf of an adventure (second time in a row) called Shackles of Blood. I'm mainly aiming at Dungeon Masters here but since it's a free pdf and players may read this, I'll try to avoid spoilers.

Overall Structure

The adventure starts off a bit slow (you won't be slaying your way through armies of kobolds in this one) but provides many opportunities to role play. When the action does start rolling, it is centred around a set piece encounter that is actually pretty good. If you run this adventure, it will go by quick unless you pad it (though it probably isn't the easiest adventure to add to). It's not a very easy one to recycle either. It's also quite a bit more railroad-y than I would like. It ties into the issue 3 adventure.


This adventure has a few problems with it. I'll try to list them all below.

  1. There is one place where it seems the counting is slightly off (page 14).
  2. The race relations in the adventure as written are weird and takes some creativity to make sense if you a human in the party (I don't have a way I'm 100% happy with to fix this).
  3. The difficulty stuff for this adventure is a bit wonky. You probably won't have much luck running this adventure with a full part of level 1's without giving extra experience or a level up.
  4. Awarding experience at the end of part 1, regardless of how players accomplished the ending, makes the most sense to me (otherwise it makes less sense to me and one party member can cause the party to not get experience as written).

What Can Be Scavenged

The set piece encounter can quite easily be converted to new adventures or used as inspiration (it is very situational though). There is a character named Deriel that may give new Dungeon Masters ideas. The general idea and role of her character can be used to great effect but the way she is used is not very good in my opinion.

Overall Opinion

As an adventure, I'm not a fan though it's not like there is nothing here. At this point I'm convinced that a good Dungeon Master can make any adventure good, but this one will require quite a bit of work. What you can recycle from this is either situational (the set piece encounter which is pretty good) or is an idea that basically requires a rewrite for when you use it. If you are in a pinch and have to run this adventure, address those problems and carefully think about it and you may be able to save this. If you like the idea and want to save it, I'm sure you can but it won't be as easy as reading it and running it. The only case where you could just read it and run it is if your party has no human characters, is 5 level 3 characters and acts exactly as predicted in part 1 (which you can't predict ahead of time).

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Dungeon Master: Reducing Rolls and Time

As a Dungeon Master, you may need to do a lot of rolling. As the group gets bigger, the more rolling the Dungeon Master will find themselves doing. In D&D 5th edition, this is also true as the party levels up (there aren't that many high level enemies so instead larger groups of enemies are needed to challenge the players). In order to help deal with this, I will provide a few ways to reduce the total number of rolls. It will be mostly focused on D&D, though the basic principles can be applied to other tabletop RPGs as well. Most of it will be already known to older players, but I hope it helps.

Don't Go Overboard

If the Dungeon Master goes overboard with reducing the amount of rolls, the game might start to feel too deterministic. It's also important to remember that the goal here is to reduce the rolling in order to keep the game flowing at a pace that is still interesting for the players. The players can handle their own rolls and should be allowed to roll for actions that they take.

Reducing Combat Rolls

D&D 5th edition has the average damage and health provided for their creatures. Simply using these values will allow the Dungeon Master to greatly speed up combat, since they will only need to roll to see if the creature hits (you need to leave some randomness). Combat may feel a bit less dangerous for players, since they will expect certain damage from their enemies (some groups may prefer the reduction in randomness) and the enemies themselves will feel less diverse compared to if health was rolled.

Where it gets a little trickier is initiative. You don't want to completely remove rolling for initiative and take the average because doing so would make combat less tactical. For this kind of situation, I've seen two main ways being used. The first is to break off similar enemies into smaller groups (if there are 8 goblins, you can break them up into 4 groups of 2 or 2 groups of 4) and roll for those groups (this also works for stealth and surprise). Doing so reduces randomness a bit and should really be employed when there starts to be a lot of enemies in a combat encounter. It's also perfectly balanced when the players are also acting as groups (as I outlined here). To make the scene more climactic and to keep things going faster, I've seen Dungeon Masters move multiple characters at once. While this speeds things up, it's also important to try and avoid doing things that couldn't be done if you used turns instead.

Pre-Rolling and Out of Combat

When not in combat, it can be tempting to try and reduce rolls as well. The issue is that often times doing so causes strange results. Stealth, for example, is made against the passive perception of characters. If you remove this roll and use the average values, we end up with the same issues as when we looked at combat (we removed too much randomness). In such a case, it may be beneficial to do rolling before the game and keep a note of it. Doing so has a few advantages. First, it prevents meta-gaming since players don't know the roll has been done. Second, when done during preparation, it makes the actual running of the adventure easier and allows the Dungeon Master to focus more on the role-playing. The down side is that it can sometimes cut down on the suspense and if your players aren't aware of it, may think that the Dungeon Master made the decisions when in reality it was the dice. It can also make some moments less suspenseful, since players won't be waiting in anticipation to see what the dice say. Naturally, it can also only be applied to things that were foreseen or planned. The Dungeon Master should not be too attached to the rolling he did previously to prevent railroading.

Situations where this can be done to great effect are:

  • Rolling health (you can keep an array of values for each creature you are going to use for that week)
  • Deciding if a creature will be seen by party members (the value will then be used for active checks)
  • Deciding if a player will notice a lie (the value will then be used for active checks)
  • Deciding if a character will succeed on a skill check (sometimes I find myself making adventures where the bad guys have their own skill checks in order to allow for more outcomes, especially if I like it enough to run with a different group)

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Dungeon Master: Large Player Character Groups

The size of the adventure group has a great impact on the campaign. Everything from the resources available to the players to how death is handled is impacted. For this reason, I hope to go over some of the reasons to have a large group of player characters as well as some of the difficulties that results.

Many Players, Many Characters

Having the right sized group is important for creating a fun game, since too few players doesn't give enough for people to build off each-other and too many players leads to large breaks during combat as well as conflicts when role-playing. However, it's not always practical to break a larger group into 2 smaller groups. When run correctly, a large group of many players also means that the players can build off each-other more effectively since the larger group allows a larger variety of ideas.


The main issue that can be solved in a large group is the large breaks during combat. Part of the problem in these cases typically comes from players wanting to make good decisions in a life or death situation and as such taking time to think through their decisions. The more players there are, the more this will become apparent. Knowing your group is especially important to solve this, but even something as simple as making people talk through their entire turn can help players take less time to take their turn. In extreme cases, you can impose a time limit (some groups even prefer this to make it more tense and because they have other people's turns to think). To make things fair, the Dungeon Master should follow the same rules (though leeway may need to be given since the Dungeon Master is responsible for for more).

Multiple Characters Move at Once

The Dungeon Master can also make the players take their turns at once. This allows them to collaborate on strategies but also makes it more interesting for people who are watching since there is more to keep track. There are some minor rules considerations for this situation, such as how to decide who goes when (let players choose their groups based on a group size determined by the Dungeon Master and let the best initiative bonus roll for initiative). In extreme cases, you can even determine surprise and initiative completely by group instead of individual characters. The dungeon master can also do the same to reduce rolls and make it fair.

Few Players, Many Characters

The more player characters there are, the more resources the players have available to them. I've been careful up to this point of saying player character because the Dungeon Master can always allow each player to have more than one character if that number of players isn't available. There are many benefits to doing so. It gives the players more options in combat. The power of numbers can allow the party to accomplish feats impossible with a smaller party. It gives them more options in role-playing situations (they have more skills in total to distribute). It also makes the death of a character less of a hassle for the player, since they have other characters to play in the meantime. There are also all of the some disadvantages of having many players and many characters present.

Multiple Characters Move at Once

Like with the previous example, allowing multiple characters to act at once helps speed things up and keeps people engaged. In this case, however, instead of multiple players moving at once it will be only once player at a time but they will move all of their characters at once. As in the previous case, I suggest determining initiative and possibly even surprise on a group basis (in this case, it is also a player basis).  

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Dungeon Master: Host's Poison

There are many different tools available to assassins. One particularly noteworthy tool is a strange necklace I was able to study from an undisclosed source. The necklace in particular didn't seem to be that unique in terms of appearance except for a small valve like feature that released water, despite no water ever being poured into the necklace. I was warned to be very careful about not ingesting it. A slow death would follow if I did.


The design of the item doesn't matter. Any item can be used for this purpose, though jeweler and other non-suspicious items are most common. Regardless, there is some kind of hidden compartment in the item. This hidden compartment is filled either with water or a powder (nicknamed host poison though it is magical in nature). A wearer of the amulet is immune to all effects of the contents of the item of equal strength or weaker. When ingested, it acts as a curse that will kill that creature within 24 hours (the strength of the creature of the amulet determines the level of spell needed to remove the curse). Slight symptoms appear after 2d4 hours of being ingested. Such an item is typically used to treat someone with poisoned food while the assassin also eats the same food in order to try and deflect suspicion.

D&D 5th Edition Rules

The strength of the item ranges from 1-9, corresponding to the level of spell used in the construction (3 is most common). The powder or water is only created from the item once a day but can be stored for a week (it evaporates, is corrupted from the humidity, or the magic wears off after 2 weeks). After 2d4, any creature that was not wearing a “host's poison” item of equal strength starts to feel slightly off. The effect tends to be minimum until the target finally drops dead after 24 hours.

Variant: Instead of acting as a curse, a poisonous powder or liquid seeps from the hidden compartment (it is created magically, but not magical itself). Someone with experience in poisons will be able to make an antidote (acts like applying a dispel magic spell but requires 50GP * level of the item to create).

False Legends?

Some have expressed the idea that such items don't really exist and instead came about from the legend of other items. Items that allow immunity to poison and containing a secret compartment for poison would allow the same strategies to be used. In order to match the legend perfectly, the poison used would need to be slow acting.

In-game: Grants immunity to poison and contains space to store 1 dose of poison inside a secret compartment (other liquids or powders can also be stored).

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Dungeon Master: No or Limited Death

Having talked about the various ways to handle death in role-playing games (and specifically D&D 5th edition), I think it's the perfect time to talk about how to handle campaigns without player character death at all (or at least, player character death in the traditional sense) or with restricted character death. Is this heresy? Yes, but just stay with me for a little bit.

No Death Doesn't Mean No Consequences

Just because you don't have death for player characters doesn't mean there can't be consequences. If we take for example a campaign where the players are gods and when they die they just create a new avatar, you can still impose consequences on the players for losing an avatar. Maybe they will be weaker after wards. Maybe they will have 2d4 weeks of time missing. Also, a campaign without player character death doesn't necessarily mean there can't be a total party kill (if everyone dies, everyone dies or a bigger penalty is given).

Why Would You?

There can be many different reasons to motivate the decision to remove player character death. If you don't allow a permanent character death but do allow a temporary death, you can save a lot of time and frustration from your players when they die horrible painful deaths in a campaign whose difficulty is cranked to 11+. It also allows you to emphasize different aspects of the campaign. Instead of focusing on staying alive and accomplishing something, the players can be fully focused on accomplishing an objective. While this may not sound that impressive at first glance, it allows a whole slew of suicidal tactics that won't be punished (normally, suicidal tactics are punished by the game rules) as well as much less lenient time constraints (if the whole party dies, it may take 7 days for them to get new bodies by which time the big bad has won and the players will need to do damage control) that may force players to fight on without rest. 

It's Hard to Get Right

I'm not going to lie; getting a campaign that doesn't have player death isn't easy. It should make sense in the game world. The players themselves should be fine with it as well. If you still have hit points, they should mean something (in the god example, it's the hit points of the body and not the god). It basically has to be tailor fit for the situation. It should not wear out its welcome and it should mean something.

No Death Examples

  • Epic eternal fight between life (living people) and death (undead army of evil). Naturally, you got some weird turn coats. Necromantic energy is leaking out of the ground itself, reanimating the dead unless it can be resealed. Dead characters will be revived as they were in life but upon completing their quest, with no more necromantic energy to sustain them, the player characters who died during the campaign will die with the rest of the undead.
    Note: Dying as an undead means you will be a corpse until you reanimate some time later (maybe 2d6?).
  • The characters are gods. Their avatars can be destroyed but doing so does not kill their godly soul. They can regain a body 2d6 days later a certain number of times (chosen by DM, could also use hit die). After regaining a body too many times, they must wait 2d6 years (or decades) to gain a new body. For this to work, the story should span an extremely long time.
  • * Includes above variants. Both players and villains cannot be permanently killed. They are bound by certain rules. Their success or failure is determined by how they influence the world itself.
  • Give the players an artifact or multiple artifacts that allows them to revive the dead. This takes away player character death but doesn't remove a total party kill (if there is no-one left alive to use the artifact, they are dead).
  • Give each player a certain number of free deaths (represents favours from the god of death). Instead of dying when meeting the conditions for death, they regain all hit points and lose all conditions (unconscious players can also spend a favour, though you can do this by points and rule that this kind of favour costs half as much as revival from the dead).
  • Make all the characters liches.
  • Make all the characters revenants, having to succeed on their revenge on the same guy before their time runs out.

Note: Techniques above can be used for the villain instead, in order to discourage head to head confrontations unless necessary. Can also use a lich instead. 

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Dungeon Master: Death Rules

Over the course of role-playing game history, there have been many different methods to decide when a character dies. However, taking D&D as an example, typically there is only one system. For anyone who has been reading my earlier posts, I tend to think that the rules should fit the game that the Dungeon Master is trying to create. For this reason, I'll go over a few different ways to handle death (this is mainly meant for newer players that didn't experience other editions and their death rules). I will avoid talking about ways you can eliminate death complete since I will be handling that in a different post. It will be mainly focused on D&D. 

Dead is Dead

There is always the classic old D&D of less than 0 hit points being dead. It's simple, but it may result in a lot of character creation. From what I've seen, this has become less popular over time. It does a very good job of creating tension for death. There's not much else to say.

More Deadly

The current D&D 5th edition system is fine, but as you get to high levels the odds of having an instant death become less and less. This is because as your total health increases, the amount of damage you need to take past 0 to instantly die increases. If you don't like that, you can easily scale it in a different way. Care needs to be taken to avoid making lower levels deadlier if not intended. I generally find the best way is to either use the original rules (this means players don't instantly die at higher levels unless they suffer extremely large such as a fall or the breathe weapon of a powerful dragon).

Less Deadly

If the deadliness of low level play isn't your thing, it's easy to house rule to be a little more forgiving. Just ignore the instant death rule and roll saves. I prefer to use the standard method located in the rules but hey, this works just fine too.


The overall level of the party will make a difference. A higher level party that has access to spells that revive the dead may be perfectly fine with more deadly rules from the onset, though they may needed added magic items to revive the cleric if something happens. The rules for death need to be taken into account along with the intended mood as well as the other parts of the game. Stricter death rules combined with more magic items for the party make for a completely different experience (in an undead setting where the dead and dying are almost instantly corrupted to unlife, this may help build the tension and fear).

Sunday, 20 September 2015

D&D 5th Edition Stealth Issues

 Well, I did promise that I'd talk about D&D 5th edition's stealth system. So, let's get right to it (naturally this will be system specific). Also, I'll be using some of the stuff I mentioned here.

Group Stealth Checks

Group stealth checks aren't really mentioned in the rules as they are presented. At the same time, some adventures sometimes use group stealth checks. On one hand, you can argue that a group stealth check makes sense since the stealthier characters can plot out paths that will attract the least attention. On the other, they can make sneaking easier in some circumstances (two stealthy characters together). The easy solutions is to set a minimum number of people to use a group check as well as a maximum number of people (if there are 10000 of you, they will see you) or just leave it as is.

What Does That Say?

I've been reading and rereading the stealth rules for this edition of D&D and ... I've basically given up running them as written and just cobble together my own system. The other activities section (page 65 of the basic rules) for traveling says that when a player is doing an alternate activity, they don't contribute their perception checks to the group. Does this someone performing an alternate activity get instantly surprised or is there some unmentioned way for characters who don't notice the stealthy enemy to be warned by their allies? I like the idea of being able to warn the rest of the party (fail the stealth check by 5 or more for example?).


The expertise rogue feature on perception and stealth checks gives a massive advantage to those checks (when combined with other features, it gives them a very impressive minimum value for stealth checks). If the party ever faces similar characters (especially if the Dungeon Master tries to build a rogue using the player rules for the party to face), there is a large chance they will be surprised. I've seen almost the entire party take the alertness feat just to avoid it in games that involves a lot of stealth.


A solution for this isn't really that easy. It seems the intention in this edition is for the Dungeon Master to determine when surprise is appropriate as well as when it makes sense for characters to sneak past. There is nothing wrong with that but as written it can make things rather strange. To help some people out, here are some options:

  1. Failing a stealth check by 5 or more allows that character to warn the rest of their group (solves the case when players do other tasks too)
  2. Group checks are allowed for a group to sneak. Their check is equal to the the middle value. In the case of an even number of characters, go up (in a group of 4, the second highest value is the groups result in cases where the value is needed for later)

Areas like rogue's expertise are more challenging and need to be decided with the rogue player themselves. You could also decide that it is fine as it is, but I still find it kind of weird in it's current form at high level play.  

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Dungeon Master: Stealth

If you play any table top role-playing game for long enough, someone is going to want to try to sneak by something. However, I generally find stealth rules to be written in such a way that they need to either be decoded or completely replaced (inspired by me trying to figure out the D&D 5th edition stealth system). For this reason I hope to write down the considerations I go through when I think about a stealth system and designing a stealth system. Hopefully it helps someone out there. Next week I'll look at the D&D 5th edition's stealth system in particular and address some of the weird things I see there.

Case by Case

When we are talking about a stealth system, I find there are some very specific situations that we can list and examine. These situations, when combined with some kind of decision mechanism such as dice rolls, effectively make up the stealth system itself. The basic cases I am talking about are:
  1. What happens when the character(s) has successfully achieved “stealth”?
  2. What happens when the character(s) has failed to achieve “stealth” when trying to?
  3. What happens when some of the characters have failed to achieve stealth while the others have?
  4. What happens if both groups achieve “stealth”?

Achieving Stealth

The rules for achieving stealth as an individual or as a group can vary. For example, using D&D 5th edition, we can force every person to roll a stealth check when trying to sneak as a group or we can try to use a group check. A group check would improve the party's odds of success. This kind of decision from the Dungeon Master will then in turn have an effect on how often the party tries to sneak (it may make sense to give an easier time for players trying to sneak past enemies in a campaign where there are many enemies stronger than them).

Once stealth is achieved, what does that actually mean? There are many different benefits that can be provided from a small bonus to the first attack and the ability to sneak away to giving an entire extra round of combat through “surprise” (like D&D 5th edition). In the D&D 5th edition example, you can even choose to house rule it so that when a character surprises another character, they have advantage (A surprises B, A has advantage when attacking B).

Failing to Achieve Stealth

There can be a number of different things that can happen if a character trying to sneak past another is discovered. In games like D&D 5th edition, there is already an opportunities cost associated with stealth since you need to be moving slowly. However, there can be other penalties added such as acting later in the round (a smart enemy might be able to attack someone who thinks they are hiding).

Only Some Achieving Stealth

If some members of the party manage to be stealthy enough to avoid a threat while others are noticed, there are a number of things that can happen. Two examples are that the entire party will be noticed but the enemy may be surprised by the hidden characters (this is the D&D 5th edition method) or that the members that managed to hide are not visible to the enemy while the ones that were noticed are visible (this means they will be attacked where as the ones who managed to hide aren't visible). When designing or modifying a stealth system the intended outcome of such a situation needs to be considered as side effects can occur. If only part of the party will be targeted because the rest is hiding, it may be beneficial for the party over all but increase the risk for those who aren't noticed. If done in a certain way, it can actually create a situation where players avoid stealth because it doesn't give enough advantage or where no matter what they try to sneak because it is so advantageous and accessible.

No-one Sees Each-other

Play D&D long enough and you may run into a situation where both sides are sneaky enough not to be seen by the other. Typically, in such a situation it is the Dungeon Master's job to decide what happens. If the two groups don't see each-other but still move towards each-other, they may eventually collide (sometimes literally). The two groups may also pass without incident. If desired, the Dungeon Master could also add concrete rules such as, “two groups within a certain range of each-other (50 feet) will see each-other regardless of sneaking ability when they are in grassy plains”. Because of these options, this case still needs to be considered when running or designing a stealth system (even if no rules are explicitly present).  

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Dungeons & Dragons: Out of the Abyss Early Review

  • 255 pages long with 215 of the pages directly dealing with the adventure (not counting creatures, items, etc.)
  • Grants the Dungeon Master and players a lot of freedom
  • Quite a few nice dungeons
  • Lots of full colour art (as we have come to expect of this edition)
  • Locations in the Underdark, important characters found there and creatures described in detail (quite a few tables)

Could Go Either Way:
  • A big cast of characters can end up joining the party in the second half of the adventure (running this, especially in combat, can be a bit of a challenge especially for an inexperienced group)
  • Certain parts of this adventure can be quite challenging and may even result in players needing to flee from danger (players should be aware and okay with this)
  • It's set in the Forgotten Realms and the Underdark in particular (for you Forgotten Realms haters)
  • No combat grid resources included
  • Requires significant Dungeon Master preparation
  • No supplement
  • No PDF*

* Denotes nitpicking.
Cover art of Out of the Abyss
Cover art of Out of the Abyss. Who wants to take a shot at him first?


Out of the Abyss is an epic scale adventure set to be released on September 15th, 2015. In this adventure, prepare to face demons of awesome power in the depths of the Underdark. As part of my review, I will go over the adventure itself as well as the general quality of the book, the free materials available as well as what I felt was missing (to help my fellow Dungeon Master's prepare). I will update this post if new things are released as well to add my final comments after I finish the adventure.

Other Information

At the time of writing this, I have read through the book cover to cover and have run 3 chapters of the adventure. My group has played D&D for a while now and generally feels comfortable with the current version. We usually either play in a home brew setting or the Forgotten Realms, though all of us have experience from the other classic settings outside the group. The group in general is really fond of the Underdark and were very happy to be back.

I have generally enjoyed running and reading this adventure so far and will do my best not to spoil much of it. This will mean I will avoid talking about plot points and the important story elements but will still talk about locations and other parts of the adventure that don't ruin the story.

The Adventure

New Monsters

There are a few new monsters in this adventure and they tend to mostly fill out the lower levels as well as the really high levels. When possible, this adventure tries to use existing creatures and modify them if needed. Since a supplement is not provided, it makes running this adventure a little bit more challenging since you will have to find the creature in the Monster Manual and then modify it.

What You Need to Play

The adventures before this one had a supplement that was provided on the website and contained creatures and items needed to run the adventure from the Monster Manual and Dungeon Master's Guide respectively. Here, however, there are references made to the Monster Manual and Dungeon Master's Guide so you will have to own both of them in order to run the adventure as printed (this is quite a disappointment for me since I saw the ability to run an adventure simply using the basic rules and supplement to be convenient and welcome). 

The Adventure Itself

The adventure is meant to take players from level 1 to level 15 and starts off right in the thick of it. Players start as drow prisoners and the story unfolds from there. This particular plot point can be changed if desired but works really well in the general context of the adventure. It is best handled with lower level player characters as well. Out of the gate it was obvious to me that a lot of care went into the non-player characters of this adventure. Not only is this a case for the players' enemies but also for their allies who create some very interesting situations. There is still room to improvise on top of what is written and I found the cast of side characters to be one of the most entertaining and interesting in this edition. The total number of non-player characters can get a little difficult to manage especially since they take part in combat.

215 of the 255 pages detail the chapters and story of the adventure. This adventure in particular seems to focus a lot less on dungeons than Princes of the Apocalypse. A lot of the page count is devoted to showing off locations such as cities and towns as well as their unique characteristics and residents. That's not to say that it avoids dungeons completely as there are quite a few rather well planned dungeons. There are a few tricks hidden in the dungeons that may give less experienced players a hard time but I feel that it isn't reason enough to avoid running inexperienced players through this adventure (instead, think of ways to provide hints if they really need them).

Quite a lot of the environments and artwork in this adventure feature darkness. 

The way locations are handled as well as how characters are laid out is really where this adventure does an amazing job. A lot of freedom is given to the Dungeon Master to portray the non-player characters as they wish while still giving a good idea of what they want and are after, making them that much easier to play. The way locations are presented, described and play a part in events really does help make them memorable. There are locations that I can't wait to Dungeon Master. There were also times where I forgot I was reading an adventure and instead got lost in it as an Underdark supplement.

There are a few elements of the adventure that are a little hard to change (the opening I mentioned earlier is an example) but still possible. Overall, a lot of control is put into the hands of the players and what they wish to do. Many parts of the adventure foresee the possibility of players going a different way and provide advise on how to handle it. Still, not every situation is mentioned and even some situations which are acknowledged are not fully described. I don't see this as too big of a problem since in these cases it seemed obvious to me that not every situation could be predicted. These possibilities should be considered when preparing and running the adventure.

The adventure itself is split into two parts. The first part gives player a lot of options of where they want to go and provides for some very impressive scenes. Think demon lord worthy. The second part can be used to drop a level 7-8 party in. I wouldn't really recommend this if possible since you'll be missing out on the first half of the adventure. However, a lot of the material in this book (including the first half) can be used easily to run other kinds of Underdark campaigns. I plan to use it as a reference if my players ever go into the Underdark again.

The adventure has a lot of random encounter tables that are specific for the regions they are dealing with. There are also many planned encounters that help create important, interesting and memorable set pieces. There is often a lot of emphasis on terrain and location. However, players need to know that they might not be able to tackle every fight. Poor planning and bad luck on the players' side can turn planned and random encounters into difficult situations. Still, there are many opportunities to avoid conflict through many different ways including group checks (there are quite a few stealth group checks in this adventure) so it's not like these situations are unavoidable. There does seem to be an emphasis on making the Underdark a dangerous place full of threats that will quickly dispatch the party as well as threats that will take their sweet time to slowly take them down.

I don't want to give away too much about the demon lords and how they feature in this adventure because I liked how they appear and were handled. They are powerful and they aren't afraid of showing it off in ways players won't soon forget. However, since we are dealing with demons and madness, there are rules that deal with madness being used throughout this adventure that serve to make the adventure even more difficult. It is one of the main themes of the adventure and I was a fan of how it touched even supporting role characters.

If there is anything to really complain about, it is the overall story as written. Even though it can be run as a truly amazing adventure, there are certain plot points that may seem a bit overused even if they have the potential for a twist. I personally didn't have too much of a problem with it and believe that, even though opinions on an overall plot are subjective, you can change and make it work using the freedom the adventure gives you. I'd even go as far as saying that it is good, but I'm not sure it's so good that it will have no critics.

The Art and Book Build Quality

Gracklstugh image from Out of the Abyss
One of many environment pictures present in the adventure. My pictures really don't do it justice and there are many other great looking ones.

I found the art throughout this book to be quite nice. I really liked the images of locations in particular as they struck that balance between realism and painting aesthetic that I like. Other images, such as those of characters have a similar painting-like aesthetic like those we have seen in other books released in this edition. When comparing it to the cover of Princes of the Apocalypse, the art work throughout the book and even the cover feels more in line with the painting aesthetic I mentioned earlier (while fine, I found the cover of Princes of the Apocalypse to be in a style I don't like as much).

The book itself is nicely bounded and the pages are the same quality we have come to expect. The pages are the same type used in the Monster Manual and other core books instead of the thicker ones used in The Rise of Tiamat. I didn't notice much rippling either but remember to look for it if it bothers you. I was happy to see that no pages were stuck to each-other, but if that is something that bothers you I'd recommend to look for that if you are buying it from a bookstore.

The overall layout of the book, from the name on the spine to the layout of pages, follows the rest of the books released so far (it lacks the early core book fake torn corners just like the “Dungeon Master's Guide”). I also thought that the layout was effective.


For the suggested retail price of this product, you can check here. When I last checked the prices were $50 in the States and $63.95 in Canada (you poor Canadians). I was able to find it for as low as 31.30 at Barnes & Noble and 40.09 at the Canadian Chapters (I'm sorry Canada).

What I felt was Missing

I also have to give my customary lack of PDF complaint. I didn't expect there to be one, but at the same time having a PDF copy makes searching and flipping easier for me.

If you plan to run the combat on a grid, you will have to figure it out yourself or buy it from a third party, as seems to be the pattern in this edition (I usually just do everything myself so I can't vouch for the quality of the third party accessories or even if they have everything you'll need). There are no grids provided with the adventure or in the online materials. The maps themselves tend to have detailed images or well fleshed out descriptions making setting up the contents of a room a lot easier than having nothing at all. Still, in some cases, expect to need to take some time to furnish rooms or locations if no details are given.

For Inexperienced Dungeon Masters

Out of all the adventures released so far in this edition, this may be one of the most challenging to rule for a new Dungeon Master. It is still possible to do so but the main difficulty comes from the preparation that will need to go into making this adventure shine as well as managing all of the characters you will need to play as and interact as with your players. It will become only worse if your players will do something very creative and force you to improvise as a new Dungeon Master. There is a lot that they can do in various situations and while many of their options and outcomes are mentioned, the Dungeon Master will still need to flesh them out.

If your players like using grids, there will be more prep work for you as you will need to create the important dungeon rooms and populate them. This isn't that hard if you are experienced, but you should have a rough idea of what will be in the room (sketches made while reading and planning help).

I still think a first time Dungeon Master who is committed can make this adventure shine. Still, it will require a lot of planning and willingness to role-play a huge cast of characters as well as possibly improvising. If this seems like a lot to prepare for at once, consider breaking it down into chapters or two where you will write full notes for that chapter (you will need to reference other chapters to make sure things will fit together at a high level) and then run those chapters instead of compiling everything at once. It may not fit together as well as planning everything at once but it's important not to be overwhelmed so that you can make the current part being played as good as you can (it's easy to try and railroad players if you plan too much as well).


At this point this adventure looks to be one of my favourites of this edition. The Underdark is made into the dangerous and foreign place it deserves, the demon lords are showing their muscles and the adventure provides many different avenues for players to take. The detail and care given to the Underdark make it almost a supplement in its own right. The major disappointment in the adventure comes from the lack of supplement. This means the basic rules and the adventure are not enough to run this adventure and you will have to own the Monster Manual and Dungeon Master's Guide. The main issues of this adventure are the same ones that confront any adventure and that is, “do I need this if I already have a bunch from every other edition?”, “do I like the story?” and “is it worth the money?” (the suggest price in particular may be hard to swallow if you already own tons of adventures). As always these are subjective but out of all the adventures released for this edition of Dungeons & Dragons, Out of the Abyss is certainly one of my favourites.

Other Stuff

  • Over the course of my reading of the adventure, I found 10 examples of what I would call errors. None of them were major or impeded my understanding of the material and tending to be extremely minor issues like typos.
  • The adventure doesn't provide anything new for players to use during character creation besides a few new background features and some bonds. Because of this there is no risk of tipping character class balance.
  • This adventure had a cool trailer

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.