Sunday, 22 February 2015

Dungeon Master: Ceremonial Swords

It's easy to start to get fascinated with weapons such as swords. However, not all swords have to be magic to be special. On that thought, I will list a few ceremonial, mundane swords that could be used in different games to add flavour to various regions. Take as little or as much as you want. These types aren't completely separate as well, so feel free to combine elements (fancy pommel on a utilitarian sword, etc.)

Really Fancy Sword


This kind of sword is as exquisite as they can be. Everything from scabbard (it is uncommon for such a sword to be kept in a sheath) to the sword itself is usually decorated with engraving and on the upper end of the quality spectrum, gold. Still, practicality is considered in the making of such swords (high quality materials are usually used, though counterfeit are known to exist and lower quality weapons often used by lower nobles) and as such they can still be used in combat if needed. However, the decorations can be scratched or chipped when used in the way a sword normally would be.

In the World

“One's possessions reflect on their owner.”
In a culture where such swords are present, they are a way of showing off wealth and success. For this reason, it is considered important to fix the damage that occurs from use. While it isn't uncommon to see such swords with damage, it reflects on the owner. While having a sword of this quality, even when damaged, puts the owner above normal people, being seen with a damaged sword tends to give the impression of the lowest rank of noblemen (though damage to some parts can easily be hidden).

Utilitarian Swords


While the overall design of these weapons is simple, every part of their construction is meant to be used in combat. The overall quality of these weapons ranges, but on the upper end of the spectrum the quality is as good as any other, if not better. Since no consideration is given to appearance, these weapons have no weaknesses or extra weight created by cosmetic work.

In the World

“A weapon is meant to be used.”
Weapons of this type are worn by those who actually use them in. For this reason, if a sword is seen at the side of a noble, it is almost a given that they know how to use it (exceptions occur with young nobles from army backgrounds). It is also not uncommon for people to wear the under-padding from their armour as clothing. However, like the sword, the under-padding is expected to be exactly as used in battle. The beauty in these items is their simplicity and effectiveness and any addition purely for cosmetic reasons is seen as ruining the weapon.

Decorative Sword


There are places where having a real weapon is frowned upon, but where the association with the sword may be desired. In such cases, other items such as pins can be used to suggest the background of the individual. If, however, the image of the sword wielding noble is needed, a purely decorative sword is acceptable in some places. These kinds of swords can range from simple pieces meant to signify that the owner knows how to employ weapons of war to elaborately adorned pieces. They are artistic pieces that look like a sword in its scabbard or sheath, but are incapable of actually being used as a sword since they are a single piece.

In the World

“There is a place for weapons, but my home is not it.”
Swords of this type are often seen in cultures where having a weapon outside of war is seen as aggressive and bringing a weapon into the home of another is a great insult. Such swords would be checked at the door. Though they lack a cutting edge or thrusting point, they are still heavy enough to cause blunt damage when swung, similar to a mace. Since it is meant as a decoration, using such a thing as a weapon is generally not a consideration in the construction and as such damage is possible. Stories regarding nobles who lose their tempers and start fighting with these blunt swords are quite famous but doing so is considered to be the lowest of actions. A few stories do talk about such an action favourably, but in such a case the person who was hit with the decorative sword was extremely hated.  

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Dungeon Master: 5 Uncommonly Used Game Elements

Usually, I talk about some of the solutions I have for certain tabletop role-playing game issues or general concepts. This time, I will instead talk about elements I haven't seen used very much over the time I've played. Some of these could be overlooked for good reason, but I still want to list them for the purposes of discussion. In general, they will tend to be big things I feel should be used more often.


It's common to select different languages based on an assortment of conditions (feats, intelligence, etc.). However, I haven't really seen this amount to much in practice. Properly using language as a cultural barrier in foreign lands can create a unique experience as well as make learning new languages through mechanics a viable option, instead of being mere fluff.


I haven't played very many games where rations and food play a major factor. I've played a few, and remember them fondly, but in general it seems to be work for no real gain in most games. As a quick aside, it is easy enough to abstract that stuff away by having players say where they wish to go and have the costs paid as they leave the town/city.

Owning Property/Businesses

In D&D 5th edition, we have a set of rules for property and businesses in the Dungeon Master's Guide. In my opinion, the math tends to work out in such a way that it isn't that attractive as an option. When they do play a role, I have noticed that they don't really contribute to the story (excluding the times where players are close enough to their property to be able to go there during their down time). However, if we are dealing with earth shattering events, player owned keeps and businesses can and arguably should play major roles in the story. If their business or property is doing well, it can overlap with the “Reputation” section below.


It could be the kinds of games I played, but in general the impression the players make on other characters is overlooked. I don't mean just on major characters, but for simple people who might have heard the stories. I say this since I remember a story of one adventure we did as a group being so distorted that it took us multiple sessions just to realize that they were talking about something we did as the party. To really consider this element, even things such as items and clothing need to be considered, since they can also carry their own reputation. Once again, for some kinds of games, this could just drag the game to a halt. For political intrigue games, I would probably say this kind of thing should play a major role. In general, seeing the effects on the world, even if it is extremely small such as a character remembering a favour or slight, should be present in a game to make the world come to life. Even if the characters aren't important enough to make big changes, things should still be happening that will affect them in some way. It could be fluff or minor, but having the world change instead of remaining static can be a good thing.

Longish Term Injuries and Consequences

Let me clear, by longish I mean multiple sessions. It can be cured 2 sessions later in a temple, but for my purposes, that is still long term. Usually, injuries don't that have other effects than lower health points until you rest or heal. However, even if it is temporary, long term injuries and other consequences, when done fairly, can add immensely to the overall tone of the game (this will once again depend on the tone you are trying to create as a Dungeon Master). It could just be the kinds of games I ended up playing in, but often times the general


Those are the first 5 that came to my head. If there is something that you felt reading this that should have been mentioned or I should have left off, feel free to say so. This is also true if you feel there is a good reason those elements aren't being used more often. I merely wanted to get some more attention on these topics and have people consider these elements.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Dungeon Master: In-Game Weather

Typically, in the games I have played in, weather does not have a meaningful role besides adding to the atmosphere (despite D&D 5th edition, the newest edition at the time I am writing this, having a fatigue system). Sometimes, weather is completely left out and not even mentioned over the course of the entire campaign. As I result I thought it fit to go over some general strategies to let weather play a bigger role. As usual, this piece applies to all tabletop role-playing games but will have an emphasis on D&D 5th edition.

When to Use It

Unless the campaign is set somewhere that would make the weather a constant factor, making it have a mechanical effect should be used sparingly. There is going to be certain types of campaigns were it will need to play a major role at almost every turn (a campaign in the desert or on a ship). For the majority of them, however, the weather will mostly create atmosphere. In these kinds of cases one or two lines describing the weather and how it affects players would be enough (interlacing this with character actions also makes it feel more thematic). I would also say that weather should only be described when the weather changes, when it directly affects an action they are taking, or when players ask. Having the weather change, villagers comment on it and the occasional extreme helps flesh out regions and in campaigns were there is a lot of travelling, helps give each area an identity.

When to Use a Fatigue System

Naturally, if the weather somehow makes the characters hungrier, thirstier or more tired more quickly and the rule system already has a fatigue system (D&D 5th edition, I'm looking at you), it is straight forward to apply that same system. If it doesn't you'll have to make one up, applying penalties you think are fair. It is also worth noting if the effects can be lessened or ignored by travelling slower and more carefully (either giving advantage to the check, ignoring the check all together, or rolling checks less often).

When Not to Use a Fatigue System

I generally say that if the effects of the weather go away when characters step indoors, then the fatigue system shouldn't be used. This gives the Dungeon Master more freedom to have effects for strange and possibly magical weather (for those times you find yourself on an alternate plane of existence). Most of the time, the major effects will be penalties to perception checks to see people in the distance and perception checks for detecting creatures for the purposes of determining surprise (in this case, I would suggest to use the concealment system currently in D&D). However, the weather could add additional penalties or bonuses. The weather and type of terrain will also determine how far away you would have to be for concealment to apply (open plains and a very clear day would allow for very long distances). An example of a bonus would be a particularly good day for sailing may increase the speed a ship moves.


Though this is shorter than my usual pieces, I hope it got people thinking about weather as an element of a campaign or session. In the case of areas with mild weather, I feel using such elements can really add to a game and help build the world. In campaigns built around extreme environments, I feel it can make a game memorable. If there are particularly good examples of weather being used in your games, I would love to hear them.  

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Dungeon Master: Describing In-Game Items

Typically, descriptions of items, weapons and armor are kept short. In this way, D&D 5th edition is no exception (the lists themselves are quite short for this edition). This, however, can be a good thing as it allows a wide variety of different descriptions for armor that has the same AC. I will cover a few different methods of describing such items ranging from strict to very loose. For discussion purposes, I will just go over both (I have used them both in the past, depending on the type of game at play). As usual, it should also apply to tabletop role-playing games other than D&D, but D&D will be the only one I explicitly mention. To display my points, I will focus on armor (since armors have stats) but they can be applied to any other kind of item.

Descriptions As They Are

I have to be honest, I typically am not really a fan of the different armors as traditionally described in game. The gold costs and AC values tend to be fine, but the actual armor appearance and name can sometimes turn into an argument (I say this as someone who has spent too much time listening to why studded leather armor is historically dumb). For this reason, I am generally in favour of describing the armors however is needed for the game being played.

Strict Approach

If the descriptions are extremely strict, the variations in the descriptions will be extremely tiny. Plate armor is plate armor, and that is all. For in world consistency, this system means the players can easily identify a rough AC for NPC's simply from their description. However, it also can make it difficult for some character concepts. If you have a fighter who is meant to look like a Templar wearing chain mail, but for combat reasons wants to wear plate, it can create a situation where the role-playing and character appearance directly conflict with the best choice for combat. For some weapons not directly covered in the rules, it can be difficult to find the closest analog for them.


  • The world is internally consistent. Plate is always better than chain mail, meaning players can identify better equipped troops.
  • There is no “inferior” quality chain mail.


  • Players are restricted in how they can describe their character based on the armor they bought.

Very Loose Approach

The basis of this approach is that if you pay the required gold amount in the table, you can describe the armor however you want. There can be added restrictions, such as heavy armor must be made from mainly metal, but they are not required. The advantage of this kind of method is that players can look however they want and still be as effective as someone who used by the book descriptions. However, as a result, it can make it difficult to identify the AC of an NPC. It also places magic items into a weird position, since a +2 set of chain mail is now the same as a set that was bought using the price of plate (making it not as rare).


  • Players are free to describe their appearance however they wish. The protection is always determined by how much they paid.
  • Not every set of mundane chain mail will be of the same quality now, possibly adding to the immersion (minimum stat levels may be required).


  • Internal consistency of the world is sacrificed, as it is now possible to have chain mail as good as plate armor.
  • Differences in quality of the same armor type would need to be described to players instead of just the armor type (this means the description will be longer, taking up more time for play). These descriptions can be held back until the players ask for them, in order to save time.

Identically Stated Armor

If your player has a particular type of armor they want to use that is not in the list by default (maybe metal lamellar over chain mail), regardless of the approach, an analog will need to be found in the list. As a result, it isn't really making a new type of armor as re-skinning an old one.


I hope the above discussion at least got people thinking about these differences. Like everything in a tabletop role-playing game, the best choice will depend on the group. In general, I haven't seen the loose approach used very often, but I have had many games I enjoyed with it and wanted to mention it.