Sunday, 29 March 2015

Dungeon Master: Low Magic Settings

The typical game of D&D is one contain some level of magic. It is easy enough to create a story that requires no magic. It is still relatively easy to populate the world with enemies that aren't magical in nature. However, even if the Dungeon Master keeps tight control over magic items there are still classes like the Wizard and Cleric that are built around magic. The way to handle these classes in a magic-less or low-magic campaign is the topic I hope to cover today (since we can easily remove the magic items and creatures).

The Issues at Hand

I generally don't find it very easy to run magic-less campaigns. The reason for this, however, comes down to handling the classes. Some classes (ranger, I'm looking at you) are very easy to fluff into non magic versions or to simply remove problem spells. Doing that with a class like the Wizards tends not to leave very much (more often it is just easier to remove them entirely).

However, there is another issue at play here. Healing is typically handled by magic classes such as the cleric. Without them, the amount of fighting a group can do is shortened (effectively, the adventuring day is shortened when doing such things as dungeon crawls). This isn't necessarily a bad thing, since it inspires a careful play style and can be very effective when a large portion of the interactions aren't fighting. Regardless, this still remains one of the more difficult issues that needs to be examined when having any group without some form of healing (now, in D&D 5th edition, we have hit die that allow some healing even without a healer).

Removing Magic Classes

We can cut out any class that uses magic in some way. Done. The issue is we are basically left with two (some other rule systems may have more) classes in D&D 5th edition (classless systems or systems with a lot of non-magic classes don't have this problem), and even in those classes not all paths may be valid (the fighter with magic, for example). This can make it difficult to make unique character concepts from the perspective of mechanics unless there is some time spend on other customization options (in D&D, this would be the feats). It can also shift the focus from what players do individually to how their own special builds of the same class function as a group and rotate roles as needed (alright, our lead guy is injured, he goes to the middle and the next in line takes his place).

This method works just fine if the enemies the players will face are not magic. However, without someone who can lift effects such as petrification, fighting a Medusa becomes much more deadly (unless these effects wear off in some way). We also run into the healing issue from above. This, however, can be fixed easily enough by just creating a mundane healing system if there isn't one already (as always, this will need to vary based on the campaign and rule system). This is particularly important in D&D 5th edition, since even the Healer feat won't really help here (in general, it doesn't scale so it becomes quite useless quickly).

Reskinning Classes

Well, if you still want a class that fills the role of cleric without a magic, it is easy enough to just reword the cleric class to sound non-magic, right? Well, for classes like ranger (minus the healing) I find it generally easy to apply this approach except for the occasional spell. However, finding an internally consistent method to reword the Wizard or Cleric is difficult. I've played in games like this before but from the mechanical perspective, it never seemed quite right to me.


Here we are. It isn't exactly rocket science, but at the same time running a campaign in a setting with low-magic or no magic has its challenges. If you were thinking of running this kind of campaign, I hope this helps and if you have anything you wish to share that I missed, please do comment.  

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Dungeon Master: Limited Gods

In D&D, typically it is a given that the gods exist (the way the cleric and paladin classes are written in 5th edition don't help, either) and are very powerful (9th level cleric spell anyone?). However, depending on the world, the gods can have various degrees of influence and have various limits. Personally, I like to run games where the gods exhibit these kinds of limitations, and for this reason I will discuss various ways to achieve this effect. Each type can also be applied to individual gods in order to create some variety.

What a Cleric/Paladin Is

In some games I have played you could be a cleric or paladin that wasn't worshipping a god but instead an ideal. Allowing this allows doubt to be cast on the power or even existence of the gods in the world (if you want a D&D game where the gods aren't present, this is an easy way to have that). The definition used will have effects through the entire campaign.


When dealing with unreliable gods, the players' actions are put into focus and they cannot rely on divine intervention. It also allows for different world and stories to be told and different characters to be created. As with everything else, this becomes a Dungeon Master choice and I have played in some very good games of D&D where divine intervention could and did occur quite often. However, it is important to factor this into the world itself as it can and probably will have story and game complications (at the very least they'll need an opposing god to bring things to a level playing field and cancel out their divine help).

A World with Doubted Gods

Originally, the reason I even wrote this article is this topic. One type of world I enjoy is where the players are never quite sure if the gods their characters believe in exist. This can be used to great effect in worlds with multiple cultures and multiple pantheons of gods. However, how can we create this effect? The below are elements that can be used individual or combined in order to try and create this effect but they can also be used as ways to create unique settings or gods instead.

Unreliable Power

One way to create a world with unreliable gods is to make their powers to help in situations unreliable. This means that players cannot rely on divine help, though they can expect it randomly to remind them they are in good or bad favour with one (or at the very least unnaturally lucky). In such a case there are gods that exist, but not all worshipped gods may as some may be an artifact of random chance. Since the gods' power is unreliable, it still allows for divine intervention for certain situations where it makes sense to in the story being told. It can also create doubt, both in the power of the gods as well as their existence, if played correctly. When looking at this topic, it is also important to define exactly how their power is unreliable. Is it that sometimes they can influence events, and sometimes they can't? Is there a special set of rules the gods follow that the inhabitants of the world don't know? Can the gods' attempts at interfering backfire (they try to bring rain but instead cause a fire) or is it that the magnitude of their attempt changes (rain turns into a flood by accident or too little rain falls for the crops, even though it falls)?

Weak Power

If the gods are distant and have very little power in the world, it once again means that the players cannot rely on the gods to make things right and instead need to take matters into their own hands. They also can't rely very heavily on their power because there really isn't anything to rely on. Instead, they have to rely on the other things a god may possess such as knowledge, wisdom, teachings, etc. The downside (or upside, depending on your view) is that with this approach there is no room left for big acts by the gods. They can subtle influence small situations, overtime adding up, but they cannot create massive intervention. As a result, the responsibility falls into the hands of the players. It is also important to understand that the difference from the previous section is that here, we limit the magnitude of the gods power instead of their reliability.

Uninterested in Mortal Matters, Incomprehensible or Extremely Powerful

Of course, the gods could be incredibly powerful but their interactions are hard for the mere mortal player characters to grasp. Instead of coming in physical forms, they may influence dreams or bend luck to push the world to the direction they wish. In this case, we still have divine intervention but the method used is incredibly important. It has to be abstract and difficult or impossible to interpret as the work of a being. This can also be easily combined with the other elements, as a god can actively choose to do very little (Weak Power) or doing small tasks for a single being could be like trying to write on a grain of rice with a can of spray paint for them (Unreliable Power).


It's easy to see that there are different types of gods that can be created for a D&D world. I hope that at the very least, as always, the above got people thing about this element of a D&D world. There are so many different elements that make up a good setting for D&D, including gods, and there are multiple different techniques that can be used. If there are any that I didn't mention above, feel free to share. 

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Dungeon Master: When Armies Clash Examination

Just recently I wrote a little article about adding in mass combat rules into the newest edition of D&D (5th). Well, recently there was an article on the Wizards of the Coast website doing the same. Since I'm always looking for new rules to add to my games, took a look at the rules and even gave them a quick run, I felt it right to comment on the rules posted in the article “Unearthed Arcana: When Armies Clash”. I suggest a quick read of the article (click the blue text) since it's posted for free on the Wizards of the Coast website (big thanks).

What It Has/What Is Good

These rules in general touch on a lot of nice things for mass combat rules. A morale rule is included. Rules for terrain are included. They generally use mechanics from the main game where they can as well as providing general ways to translate abilities from the main game to the mass combat rules. They also have a concept of isolated groups, meaning that a line and formation has to be maintained or penalties are applied (there needs to be at least one other stand, the smallest bunch of people used in the rules, within a certain range to avoid isolation). They also have provisions for individual “solo” creatures that can also act as commanders. All of this is put into just over 8 pages, making it pretty light as far as mass combat rules go.

What Is Missing

  • If you liked the penalties for casualties I had in my optional rule system earlier, this system doesn't have that. Now, it is easy enough to graft those rules onto the system provided by Wizards of the Coast, but it will come at the cost of more things to track (I'm not for or against either choice, but this needs to be noted). Instead of using the members of the unit, just use overall hit points.
  • The other interesting thing is that while some quick translations are provided for spell effects, the rules do not allow movement diagonally and don't mention how to handle casting cones on diagonals (or if this is valid).
  • The rules also say that you get one square for every 20 feet, but they does not mention what happens if the range is less than that (such as burning hands with 15 feet). It is easy enough to extrapolate, but I feel it should be clearly stated the same way as for ranged attacks.

What Is Wrong

  • I really don't like the no diagonally movement rule and would prefer the optional rules from the Dungeon Master's guide instead for diagonal movement (though you would still not be allowed to attack diagonally). There is a similar rule in 3rd edition.
  • Area of effect spells do double damage when cast by a stand of spell casters. I can see why they did this (a solo, such as a player character, does spell damage as normal) but it still doesn't make sense when looking at the melee system. A general at the same level as a stand would do the same amount of damage as a stand of fighters at the same level. In my view, the double damage would need to apply to both mundane weapons and magic to prevent this anomaly with solos.
  • Skirmisher units just seem better. The only advantage I could see to a regiment is that they can configure themselves but even that takes a full action (you want to go into a defensive posture while you close the distance to the archers? Once you get there, it will take an action to get out of defend configuration. That is assuming you can close the distance moving at half speed.)
  • Units take an action as one, meaning that every stand (the smallest bunch of people used in the rules) that can cast a spell has to cast a spell when taking the cast action (or at least that is how I read it). It also means that the entire regiment unit has to have every stand in the same formation. This means you need to break down your unit into multiple ones for the flanks etc.
  • I don't really like the Victory Point idea very much at the time I am writing this. Largely, it is because I feel it should be the role of the players and the characters to decide who won and who lost (unless you are playing these rules as a quick mass battle game). If the players just wish to destroy a single bridge to delay the advance of an army and they get there, destroy it and run away without even coming into contact with the enemy army, is that a total victory, causing units to be eliminated from the advancing army? I like the idea of the survivors fleeing based on a die roll, but I know for sure I'd prefer to decide which units roll and when. The good news is that anyone who feels like I do can just ignore that entire section.


It is nice to have some mass combat rules in D&D. That way, even if there are other rule sets, there is at least some system to fall back on if you have no other. However, as written, I am not really a big fan of them. This is largely because of what I see as the disparity between skirmisher and regiment units and the same mundane damage being done by a stand as well as a solo (assuming a fighter stand and a fighter player of the same level). I don't quite know how I feel about the entire unit taking one action idea, which makes me think there is something I don't like but I can't quite put my finger on what. The diagonal movement and casting is easy enough for an experienced Dungeon Master to house rule and fix, so I don't view those as too much of a concern. Should those 3 issues I mentioned previously be fixed (either in the rules or by house rules), I'd have liked it more. The rules are playable but could use more tweaking (but hey, that is why it is in draft form) to rise above alright. 

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Dungeon Master: Player Freedom

I lightly touched upon this in my previous piece “How the World Acts”, but the influence players have is an extremely important part of a campaign. The entire tone of the game can be influenced and created based on the amount of freedom players have. For the rest of this piece, I will talk about the concept of freedom and how it applies to creating adventures.

Railroading and Bounded Freedom

An important part of being a Dungeon Master is not to railroad your players. However, depending on the kind of game, there will be certain things that cannot be achieved no matter how high you roll on the D20. If your players are expecting a down to earth, realistic-ish game (yeah, yeah, magic isn't real but it still follows internal rules), a natural 20 shouldn't let your character jump to the moon. Part of running a game is defining this boundary in a consistent way. There are even games I have played in where there is nothing off the table and while it was fun, it created a tone that was comical. For this reason, bounded freedom is an important element in creating the overall tone of a session.

The idea of limited freedom isn't the same as railroading, and I want to make that very clear. In normal day to day life, you are limited by the rules of the world but at the same time you have freedom to live within those rules. I like to think of a game to be the exact same. The issue is when your players don't like the rules and boundaries you have set up as the Dungeon Master or when you restrict their choices because of a grand plan. It is easy to accidentally railroad players, especially when lacking experience as a Dungeon Master, so keeping these ideas in mind is important.

Finding the Right Balance

Trial, error, and knowing your group. That basic approach to just about every element of a good session is also needed here. There is such a thing as too much player freedom. When is this the case? That depends on your players. The nature of role-playing games is that player actions should have effects and be acted on (actions have consequences). Certain reactions may limit player choices but that makes sense from a narrative perspective (consequences can limit freedom). Depending on the kind of game, though, the difficulty to accomplish a task will be different. For example, how difficult should it be to cut a rope from 300 feet away using a single arrow from a longbow? Well, depending on the kind of game you are playing, the answer could be from easy (though this is probably unlikely), to hard (more likely), to nearly impossible (the more realistic games would probably say this). If the difficulty is off to either direction, players won't be happy.

Plotting Advice

“Design the problem and the rules for the world but don't worry about the best solution.”

From my humble experience, the line from bounded freedom to railroading is crossed when the game master has a storyline in mind for the entire game. What this article boils down to is that quote at the start of this section. If the Dungeon Master defines the rules and consequences for actions, the players can solve that problem or confront that situation in any way they wish within the framework the Dungeon Master has set up. If the Dungeon Master has defined the entire story with every scene having a solution he has placed there, we tend to end up having railroading. This isn't to say the Dungeon Master can't give help through items and non-player characters, but the players should be free to use that help as they see fit as long as it fits into the framework built.  

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Dungeon Master: How the World Acts

In general, the world itself is an important part of a session. However, at the big picture level there are a few different ways to handle creating worlds. As the Dungeon Master you don't want to railroad your players into a certain path but at the same time they shouldn't be the only actors in the game. Today, I will talk about the two main ones I see. In general, it boils down to one system where the world always reacts to the players and the other where characters have their own choices that they are making, meaning events will unfold without the players.

The Static World

There are many games I've played where the world stays the same and waits for the players to act. Naturally, this allows for a great amount of freedom as no planning goes out the window when the players try to do something outside the box (the world simply reacts). However, while it is easy to plan, this method also has a way of making the world seem stiff. There aren't any pressing matters outside the actions of the players (the Dungeon Master will think of those when they get to it). The non-player characters simply react to the actions of players instead of acting for themselves. The details for the characters are filled in as needed in reaction to the players' actions instead of being planned in advance. This also runs the risk of making mistakes, since the plan isn't thought up in advance. As the players talk to people, the Dungeon Master will need to fill in the gaps for the character in terms of back story, motivation and other elements needed to complete the reaction. However, in this case the characters are reacting to the players and so is the Dungeon Master.

The Non-player Characters as Actors

If the entire party just ceased to exist, the world will continue. It could be that the campaign is low key so their absence makes a small change. It could be that the disappearance of the players dooms the entire world eventually. Regardless, without the players, events will unfold a certain way. As a Dungeon Master, it is still important not to railroad the players. Instead, this approach is better thought of as creating the world and a general progression (it shouldn't be specific, or this ends up being railroading) for it without player involvement. The players are then put into this system and allowed to act as they would like. Hopefully, since the Dungeon Master hasn't planned out the entire path the players can take, they aren't being railroaded. They are merely put into a system of defined actors that have their own behaviours and given free rein to do as they wish. This also means that events will move forward if players do nothing. However, the exact interventions players can make to shift the path are not made. Naturally, to create the motivations, paths and everything else requires time and effort.

As a side note, the general path that events will take can be determined by using dice at the needed times. This will mean there will be certain events that will be very hard to shift or that will occur without player involvement, but you aren't sure or don't really care which path the story takes (sometimes, you have a bunch of paths and they all sound awesome). The key here is to keep it general and vague to avoid railroading. If the situation comes up, you are ready to roll. If the situation doesn't come up it isn't a big loss since all you have written down is one sentence.

Using Both as Needed

Treating every NPC as an actor and defining their history, motivation and general path takes time. It makes sense that not every NPC needs to be defined in such a way. In such a case the important characters can be treated as actors and defined a head of time. A low ranked guard probably won't have a big effect on the world and could probably be thought up on the spot (especially in a formal situation where they wouldn't be able to speak freely anyway). The captain, however, will probably be more important.


As a quick example, take the below as an example of using both types.

  • There are three groups all wanting control of an artifact (it cannot be destroyed).
  • Currently the artifact is possessed by “The Defenders”, who simply want to guard it to ensure it isn't used. Their leader believes that any use of the artifact will end badly and so it needs to be protected at all costs. They are the strongest of the groups thanks to the skill of their personnel.
  • A second group (“The Evil Ones”) will try to attack and take the artifact by force. Their leader is over confident of his group's abilities and brash. He wants to please his gods and wreaking havoc by using the artifact will accomplish that.
  • A third group (“The Healers”) want the artifact in order to use it to undo the damage that was done during the war a few years earlier (if you need a number, take 32). Their leader is caring, sympathetic and believes in the greater good. However, he also believes that “The Defenders” are wrong and causing suffering.
  • Without player involvement, “The Evil Ones” will attack “The Defenders” and try to take the artifact. Roll a D10 for “The Defenders” and a D8 for “The Evil Ones”. Higher number wins and destroys the side of the lower number. Subtract the number rolled by the loser from the dice max of the winner to determine their new dice. Round up to the next highest dice if the new number is not a valid dice (if the result is 0 or lower, the winner is also destroyed). This is their dice from now on. In the case of a tie, determine the new dice for each side as described above but the artifact remains in the possession of the defenders, whoever they may be at the time. If the dice of “The Defenders” drops below the dice of “The Healers” (they start with a D8), “The Healers” will attack. If “The Evil Ones” gain control of the artifact, “The Healers” will know and attack them (regardless of dice). Should “The Healers” gain control of the artifact, they will try to use it to heal the magic damage but actually make things worse, forcing the entire region to be abandoned. For all attacks without player involvement, use bolded text. Otherwise, use the dice to determine relative strengths of the two sides when setting up the fight.

In the above path, the players can do all sorts of things to skew the dice, try to change the actions of the groups (maybe they can convince “The Guardians”, or find a way that will actually work for “The Healers”) but without their involvement, they will be hearing about these events from shocked people and refugees.

People other than the leaders of the factions react to the players. Create the back stories and everything else as needed from player involvement.

Note: Using averages “The Defenders” will roll a 5.5 while “The Evil Ones” roll a 4.5. This means (10 – 4.5 = 5.5, rounds to D6) that “The Defenders” hold out but are left with a D6. Seeing an opportunity “The Healers” attack “The Defenders” (rolling a 4.5 against a 3.5). They win and use the artifact, rendering the region uninhabitable.


This piece ended up being longer than I originally planned, but I hope it got the ideas flowing. The big take away here is in deciding which characters the players will act without player involvement and which characters the players will only notice if they actively try to interact with them. The line isn't clear cut, since a merchant may not feature at all since the characters don't go to a certain city (this would be a reaction) or the players may still hear the gossip about how a merchant two cities over made a fortune selling high quality swords that he obviously couldn't afford to have bought (this would be something actively happening in the world without them). Still, I feel it is an important concept to consider.