Sunday, 26 April 2015

Dungeon Master: The World as Rules and Storytelling Together

Today's topic is more general and abstract than most I've covered until now. Still, I believe it is an important topic even if some of it may seem obvious. It is also an extremely simple concept but has far reaching implications. The topic I will cover today is that the world in a table top role-playing game such as D&D is created and shaped by its rules as well as the story telling abilities of the Dungeon Master.


For the purposes of this piece, I will focus on two different ideas on world building. The first is that the world is created by the descriptions the Dungeon Master uses to bring his world to life and the story that is being told. The second is that the world is created by the rules and rulings the Dungeon Master uses to run the game. In order to get my point across in its entirety, both parts need to be considered and defined.

The World as Storytelling

The Dungeon Master is responsible for describing the world and making it come to life through story telling skills. He may use elements such as props but the core of the story is still created by the story telling skills of the Dungeon Master. Without this communication between the Dungeon Master and the players, a game cannot be run smoothly.

The World as Rules

Sooner or later the Dungeon Master will need to make a ruling. These rulings are either based on a set of rules or are made up on the spot. Regardless, they serve to create the internal consistency and rules for the world the story teller is making. Even without the story teller saying a single word the rules will say certain things about the world as well as build a certain vision. They can also tell a story of their own (a very simple example is that if your players see a wizard casting a certain spell, they can determine the minimum level of the spell caster based on the spell cast).

Storytelling and Rules Together

The line between the two is blurry or non-existent. Rules describe the world. The description the Dungeon Master gives describes the world. However, each one tends to require a slightly different mindset.

I could probably go on for a long while about the importance of these two ideas and how they interact. However, I'm going to try to keep to the heart of the topic. For the best game, both schools of thought should be considered. They should support one another in order to create a richer experience and world for the players. It is something we instinctively do since just about any story follows its own internal consistency. The difference is that in table top role-playing games the actors are acting on their own accord and not purely written by the mind of the author.

Summary in a Single Sentence

World building in tabletop role-playing games can be thought of at least two ways (the description and story that builds the game is one way while the rules that run under the game and form the framework for the limits the players act within is another) and they should be considered.  

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Dungeon Master: Villain Sator Ivertillion

I thought it was time I'd revisit the material I wrote for creating villains. In this case, I am going to outline one particular example in the hopes that someone somewhere will find it useful. Feel free to change any part as needed. The below rules will assume Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, though it should be reasonably easy to convert it over to any other system. 


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.

In general he should be run as a diplomatic and scheming character.


He is a handsome man of average height. Due to his background, he tends to wear high quality clothes. He is young with no gray in his hair. When tired he cannot hide it from his appearance.


Unremarkable in basically every way except his appearance and silver tongue, the best way to describe Sator's abilities is average. Coming from money, magic was taught to him from a young. While he was able to learn a great deal to the hard work and time he put into learning magic, he was never considered talented. In general, he is not a perfectionist and prefers to complete what he started or achieve what he is after instead. This philosophy runs through all his actions from his study of magic (even as a young student, he preferred to learn a spell and move onto another one instead of mastering it) to his personal endeavors.

As a child he was frequently sick. Even though he grew stronger with age, he still gets sick more often than the average person and doesn't have the same physical endurance. He is painfully aware of this fact and has learned how to cover up this weakness.

Despite being born to a rich family, he is fairly good with money. This is mostly attributed to his ability to talk his way into more advantageous situations that others could not. He also understands failure is an option and is quite used to his plans failing, though when aggregating his endeavors he comes out ahead. When things aren't going his way or his plan is failing, he is not against making changes or abandoning the plan altogether.

Why Is He a Villain?

This kind of villain should be hostile to the players' intentions simply due to circumstance. For this reason I have left out some parts of his personality in order to allow the Dungeon Master to pick the opposite of the player characters (if the players are lawful, he can be chaotic in order to act against them). This also means he can be made into a potential ally if the players find a way that can benefit both parties.

Playing Him

When used against a lower level party, this kind of villain can still pose a major when played straight and predictable. Due to his resources and skills he will outmatch the players. He should also be played as charming and adaptive to the situation if needed. He should be able to cause serious grief to the players in the diplomatic arena with his ability to win the approval of those he speaks to (players included). Sator does not lie often though he is very good at it and prefers the half-truth method of lying.

His average intelligence and wisdom can be played one of major two ways. At times he can be painfully predictable but at the same time his ideas will not be a bad one (though it won't be genius either). He is also capable of extremes where he can have completely flawed ideas and other times where he can have genius ideas. His ability to consistently have the full range of quality ideas (even though there will be more painfully average ideas than genius ones) should help him be less predictable.

He does not like combat and tries to avoid conflict by using his speaking skills. However, he will defend himself if needed while looking for ways to preserve his own life and his goal. Deciding whether he values his own life or his goal more should be made on a case by case basis by the Dungeon Master.


There he is. Feel free to change him in any way to make him better fit into your game. If there is anything that needs clarification, feel free to leave a comment. As always, I hope this helps.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Dungeon Master: Achieving a Balanced Party

In the games I typically end up running, the classic fighter, cleric, rogue and wizard party tends to be the exception, not the rule. However, party composition plays an incredibly important role in determining what the characters are capable of facing. In this vein, I hope to share of the ideas I've accumulated. Some of these will seem like common sense, but I hope they will help. Most of the word count of this piece will focus on the situation where party composition is simply thrown to the wind.

Substituting Similar Classes

If you don't want the same old party every time, substituting similar classes is an easy way to go. Barbarians can replace the fighter fairly easily. A sorcerer can fill in for a wizard. The issue is that while this kind of substitution is easy to do and account for, it doesn't make for the most original party.

Substituting Classes Based on Ability

I've seen wizard focused on utility spells substitute for a rogue. Of course, there were some implications for this substitute that would not be present for a rogue such as spell slots, but at the same time it worked reasonably well. There are also some situations where multiple different characters can collectively substitute for a class. You could try to replace the wizard from the party with a combination of a cleric and an Eldritch Knight in order to fill in the utility portion of that role. Generally, while this kind of substitution works quite well, it isn't a perfect substitution. Instead, you try to cover the most important portions of the class (protection against magic and utility for the wizard example) and give up portions that you can afford to give up (damage spells can be substituted by the Eldritch Knight weapon damage).

Forget Balance

The last general approach for the balancing party problem is to simply not to worry about it. The best way to accomplish this is heavily dependent on the kind of game being run (more so than the above methods). If there are no magic creatures to face the wizard's protection spells end up being redundant. In this kind of case, it is up to the Dungeon Master to somehow let the player's know the kind of game being run so that they can make sure to form a party that won't get horribly decimated. At the same time, the problem can be thrown on the other side of the DM screen. In this case, if the players want to have no cleric then maybe they need to have some kind of house rules to increase the amount of healing they can do (as a quick aside, this can be easily done by increasing the amount of healing from the second wind feature or by making the healer feat useful past level 1).

The most common issues I have seen involves healing and curing effects. If a party has no cleric, a medusa is absolutely terrifying since there isn't a good way to un-petrify characters. To get around this we either need changes in lore (killing the medusa might undo the effects or smearing the medusa's blood might as well), potions or some other way of gaining the ability.


One of the situations I encountered involved a game of the newest version of D&D (5th edition, in case you are looking at this way in the future) where the entire 4 man party was composed of fighters. It was 1 champion and 3 battle masters, each with a different build. Since the world was very low magic, this actually managed to work just fine without any changes. The players would rotate the lines when the front line got hurt enough and as a result could spread out the damage. They also had their hit dice and second wind for healing. They could have more staying power by increasing the healing from second wind or by making the healer feat worth using (maybe 1d6 more per 2 levels).


There we have it. Like I said, most of this stuff is probably common sense but I hope writing it down like this helps at least one person out there. In particular, I want to stress how much the definition of a “balanced party” depends on the campaign itself. As usual, feel free to comment on anything related to this topic.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Dungeons & Dragons: Princes of the Apocalypse Early Review

  • 255 pages long (longest adventure yet)
  • Grants the Dungeon Master a lot of freedom
  • Quite a few nice dungeons
  • Lots of full colour art (as we have come to expect of this edition)
  • New, seemingly balanced spells
  • New, seemingly balanced races

  • No combat grid resources included
  • Requires significant Dungeon Master preparation
  • No PDF*

* Denotes nitpicking.

Front cover of the new Dungeons & Dragons adventure, Princes of the Apocalypse.
Front cover of the new Dungeons & Dragons adventure, Princes of the Apocalypse .


Princes of the Apocalypse is an epic scale adventure set to be released on April 7th, 2015. This time, we see that elemental forces have been chosen over the dragons seen in the Tiamat focused adventure before it. 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've had a chance to run part of the adventure and will update this review after I finish it. 

The Adventure

New Spells and Classes

The first thing I noticed about this adventure was the new races and spells (partially because the free material was released before I got a hold of a copy). This is something completely different than the previous adventures and at first had me a little worried since there were already some spells in the core game that I had issues with. Surprisingly, there aren't any spells I have an issue with at first glance (you can be sure I will update if this changes). The races in general also seem to be in line with the rest currently published. If you are curious what they look like, they are on the Wizards of the Coast website for free.

New Monsters

There are a few new monsters in this adventure. In general they seem to fit quite well into the current collection of monsters we have from the basic rules and Monster Manual. They also cover a wide range of levels and tend to focus more on the lower levels, just like the current monsters (the distribution is a little more spread out then the Monster Manual, though).

What You Need to Play

If you don't have any of the core books there is a problem as the adventure references creatures that are only available in the Monster Manual. Personally, this is a bit of a disappointment after the previous adventures that didn't require other books to run.

Note: After the release of the supplement and using the basic rules it is still possible to run the adventure.

The Adventure Itself

The adventure is meant to take players from level 1 to level 15. To jump into the real meat of the adventure you will need at least a level 3 party but there are also introduction adventures that can be used to bring the players up to 3rd level. Though I haven't run the entire adventure yet, I have run some of the side treks and introduction adventures and generally found them to be quite enjoyable (they also seem pretty easy to drop into other campaigns).

In general, the adventure takes the form of a series of Dungeon Crawls. Coloured maps for the areas are provided (though there are no battle maps) as expected. However, there is quite a bit of space devoted to characters. Out of the 255 pages only about 92 or so are dedicated to the dungeons that form the core of the adventure. The remaining chapters cover a bunch of different topics including new monsters, new races, new spells and new items. There are also quite a few pages dedicated to characters, factions and the general area (such as the town and country side) that the adventure takes place in. This gave me the impression that I was reading more than a simple Dungeon Crawl and is generally appreciated. Interestingly, there is also a small section with guidelines for converting the adventure over to settings such as Dragon Lance, Dark Sun and Grey Hawk (having spent time in these settings before, this is appreciated even if the section isn't very long).

The way the adventure is written does require some work on the part of the Dungeon Master to make this adventure work and to fill in some of the holes (these holes usually have to do with character interactions that aren't covered, but luckily characters are described in the adventure). My biggest complaint would have to come from the work needed to make it usable with grids as it is given (this seems to be a running pattern). In general I have my own tiles I can use, but it is more difficult for new players to run grid combat without giving them some kind of resources.

The locations and encounter design is fairly varied from what I saw (I guess the different elements allow this to happen quite easily). There are opportunities written in for different approaches to the same problem and lots of wiggle room for the Dungeon Master to add their own flourishes and touches. In general, I seem to recall being less confused reading this adventure than The Rise of Tiamat (though that may also be my selective memory kicking in, I'm pretty sure it isn't judging by the length of the “Other Stuff” section).

I don't generally like talking about the plot of an adventure since it comes down to personal taste. However, the overall plot of this adventure is fairly wide in scope and allows interaction with many different characters. If you liked the previous adventures in this editions run, you will probably like this one. I generally felt it was a solid adventure, though at the big picture level it wasn't the most original one I ever played through. Still, it had some neat flourishes in terms of certain characters and certain events that take place during the adventure that made it feel quite varied to me.

The Art and Book Build Quality

The art through the book is fairly decent. I personally prefer the art style used on the cover of The Rise of Tiamat, but this one isn't terrible either. There is also some art that plays more to my tastes (the more sketch/painting type of art on the cover of The Rise of Tiamat I mentioned previously).

The book itself is nicely bounded and pages are reasonable quality. 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. They didn't ripple the same way my Dungeon Master's Guide did, though if slightly warped pages are a concern you should still look for them in the book before you buy it.

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”).


This is the costliest adventure Wizards of the Coast has put out for this edition so far at $50 the States and $58 in Canada. However, as usual, most places have the book at a lower price. The cost is offset by this being the longest adventure released so far in this edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Doing a quick search, it is possible to find this book at around $33 ($37 at Chapters was the lowest I could find for the Canadians in the audience).

What I felt was Missing

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

If you plan to run the combat on a grid, you will have to figure it out yourself. There are no grids provided with the adventure or in the online materials (as of this piece being published).

Free Stuff

Wizards of the Coast were nice enough to provide some material for free through their website. You can check it out here (if you are interested in this adventure, I do recommend looking at the free material provided to help make your choice).


In general, I think this is a generally solid adventure. It seems to be at the consistent level of quality Wizards of the Coast has been at since the start of this edition. Unlike other adventures so far, this adventure includes new races and spells as well as the usual new magic items and monsters. However, this adventure is quite a bit bigger in terms of page count compared to the earlier adventures in this edition and the price tag tends to reflect this. It is still missing a PDF copy and doesn't include resources for grid combat, though this isn't any different from the previous adventures in this edition. If you liked the previous adventures in this edition, you will probably get enjoyment out of this one.

Other Stuff

  • The free Player's Companion PDF is here. It contains the new races and spells.
  • The “Whirlwind” spell wording confused me at first.
Update: The adventure played out as I expected. In general the design of the locations meant that there were good twists that kept the combat interesting. As expected, I also had to do quite a bit of preparation in regards to the character interaction. If you are the kind of Dungeon Master that is good at making things up on the fly, this won't be that big of an issue. My major complaint in terms of the adventure design comes from the ending which I generally felt wasn't as strong as  The Rise of Tiamat without my intervention. 

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.