Sunday, 31 May 2015

Dungeon Master: Soul Bounded Sword

Part of the challenge of running a table top role-playing game is coming up with ideas that make the campaign memorable. One way that seems to work for my group is through quirky rewards. I can't remember when I first saw the item I'm going to be talking about today, but it left an impression on me and I hope that others can find it. I am also going to go over a few different variations of a soul bounded sword. It will be aimed at 5th edition D&D but should be easy to convert to other systems. The general ideas are easy to apply to other weapons as well. As always, feel free to change the DCs.

General Idea

The basic idea behind this weapon is a very simple one and can be seen throughout D&D history with monsters like the lich and the death knight. Through magic, a character's soul is connected to the weapon and as a result there are certain bonuses they receive. This kind of weapon is typically given to non-player characters but with care can also be given players as well.

The Soul Bounded Sword

“The weapon, seemingly of good quality and make, chips easily with every swing you make. To make matters worse, you feel pain flare with ever chip as scratches appear on your body.”

Every time a character attacks with this sword and deals damage, the bound character loses the same amount of hit points (if they attack a creature with 2 hit points left and roll 6 damage, the bound character takes 2 necrotic damage). Casting remove curse on the sword frees the character and also removes the curse on the item, making it a non-cursed magic item. Casting remove curse just on the bound character severs the link with the weapon but the item remains cursed. Destroying the weapon kills the character bound to it. If the character bound to the sword is killed, the next character to touch the sword is bound (there are ways around this, such as tongs or magic gloves). While not bound to a soul, it has no bonuses.

Note: As written above, if a player wrestles away the soul bounded sword from a character and proceeds to attack the bound character with their soul bounded sword, they will do double damage. They can also wrestle it away and destroy it, thereby killing the character bound to the sword.

Addition 1: You can allow the bound character to sense where the item is and if it has been moved. This way, they at least have some benefit from the curse.

Addition 2: You can allow the bound character to call the weapon to themselves by using their bonus action or their one interaction with the environment as part of an action as decided by the character.

Addition 3: Through the connection, the sword can subtly influence the character's actions. Roll a Wisdom saving throw when the bound character is attempting to draw a weapon (DC 15) and the soul bounded soul is within reach. Upon failure the character, unconsciously and without noticing, grabs the cursed weapon. (The saving throw can be changed to charisma to be more like resisting the charm spell or the player can choose between the two).

Addition 4: Wearing gloves while touching the sword does not cause it to be bound to you.

Addition 4: The curse is quite powerful. Roll an Intelligence (Arcana) check (DC 20) when an identify spell is cast on the weapon. On a success, the curse is identified.

Alternate 1: If more incentive to use the cursed weapon is desired, change the damage that the bound character receives from the sword to 1/2 that they dealt.

Alternate 2: In the hands of the character that is bound to the sword, it functions like a normal sword. However, it becomes weakened when separated from its owner and at that point begins to chip.

Alternate 3: Roll a Wisdom saving throw (DC 15) when a character first touches a bounded soul sword that is currently bound to no soul. On a success, they start to feel something is wrong and can choose to drop the sword. Afterwards, the sword tries to bind itself to the character holding it. The character cannot mistake the sword's attempts to bind them now (describing the swords attempts and attack should be left to the Dungeon Master and vary case by case). Roll a Charisma saving throw (this is meant to be like a charm spell) (DC 15) on a success, they resisted it long enough to try to drop it. If they do not drop it, they have to make the saving throw again at the start of every round or after every 5 seconds.

The above options can all be combined and used together in order to create many different kinds of items based on the same concept. An addition is something brand new where an alternate will change something originally written.

In the World

To provide incentive for players to buy these weapons, the sword can be made 1/2 the price of a sword with the same bonus. It should also cost 1/2 the cost to make compared to the item with the same bonus, if you can bound the characters soul during the construction process (this is easy to do if they are willingly part of the process because they think they are getting a magic weapon or when they actually want the item as is). In the magic black market, such cursed items could be regularly pushed on unsuspecting customers at full price. If this is part of your desired world, addition 4 should probably be used.

Whether the weapon should cost the same to make compared to the item with the same stats should be decided on a game by game basis (this is when the original bound soul is not part of the process). In general, if it costs

Also of note, this kind of weapon can actually be desirable with alternate 1, alternate 2, addition 1, addition 2 and if offered for half price. They do come with the drawback when separated from their owner.

This kind of sword can be used as the first step of creating a lich or death knight, if so desired. The next step could be a series of rituals that prevent the character from aging when bound to the sword and the last could be the rituals that allow a character to gain their undead powers.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Dungeon Master: Wounds

Even when not facing dragons and undead on a daily basis, everyone gets hurt. Of course, the chances of getting hurt are much higher when sharp pointy swords and powerful spells are involved. Just recently I had a situation where my players damaged a character with a crossbow bolt, failed to kill him and instead wounded him. For this reason I would like to put forth optional combat rules for handling an NPC character that was wounded. The exact values and terms used will match up with D&D 5th edition but can be converted to other systems as well.

When to Use It

I'd recommend using this kind of system mainly for non-playable characters. However, if desired it could also be used for players. It also allows the players the ability to fight someone usually out of their level range depending on the penalty that the wounded character receives.

Types of Wounds

There are a large variety of different kinds of ways characters can be damaged over the course of a campaign and likewise there are many ways for them to get wounded. In the example I mentioned, the character took a crossbow bolt to the chest. Depending on the situation, the type of wound has to be handled on a case by case basis.


Body Wound

The character took a crossbow bolt roughly a week ago (any kind of piercing or slashing wound would also work). As a direct result, scabbing and healing has started but may be torn open from too much strain (three actions taken in three turns or less). If the character does put themselves under too much strain (three actions in a row), they must make a saving throw (DC15) right after taking the third action and on a failure have the wound torn open.

When the wound is torn open, the character takes damage at the end of every turn (2D6) including the turn that the wound was torn open on. The character may use one hand to reduce the damage (by 1D6) or both hands and an action to completely stop the bleeding. They will need to apply pressure on the wound for a short rest before they stop taking damage.


Severity of the wound can be changed by changing the DC, the damage taken (both with pressure applied and without), the number of turns that determines if the character is under strain as well as the length of time needed before the damage stops being taken. Certain actions can also be chosen not to count to the 3 in a row limit (if a level 1 party is facing a level 5 fighter, you may rule that the wound is bad enough to be under strain after 2 actions). Alternatively, saving throws can be made again after taking damage. On a success, the character stops taking damage. You can also force the character to roll a save if they are damaged in a way that may tear open the wound.  

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Dungeon Master: Impossible Situations

I don't think I've played with a Dungeon Master that didn't at least consider putting their party up against an impossible to win situation. However, the large degree in variance I have seen got me thinking about the difficulties of doing so. In books, movies and video games we often see final blazes of glory and valiant last stands. Naturally, it makes sense that we would try to replicate such situations. However, as with all things, there are effective ways and ineffective ways to create such a situation.

Do I Really Want to Do This?

From my experience, if you are asking this question you probably should not put your players in an impossible situation. From my experience, it usually doesn't go smoothly from a role-playing game perspective. One of the most memorable campaigns I played in had an impossible situation in our very last session so it is possible to run effectively. However, I feel that if you are going to try to run an impossible situation you should be confident before trying to run it and fix elements you have doubts about. It doesn't guarantee success but from my experience things don't go smoothly if you aren't happy with the high level outline.

What Is an Impossible Situation?

Defining and being aware of what makes the situation impossible is extremely important. Even if the players immediate goal is not possible (the players are out matched and can't fight their way to the person they were trying to assassinate) the players should still have options. Sometimes the only option that makes sense is to run away. Sometimes they might be able to accomplish their goal through more clever means than an upfront assault.

Generally I define an impossible situation to be one where the players cannot accomplish something. In such a situation, for the short term it is perfectly fine for the players' goals to change to survival if needed. In this kind of situation they will not be able to save the princess, kill all of the bad guys and live to tell the tale but that is fine. The important part is that the chances of the situation going completely the players' way is very small so the best they can hope for is to avoid a complete loss.

The players should still have something to achieve. If they do not, the Dungeon Master is basically killing their party the long way around. The situation should be desperate but still have a purpose, even if it is for the players to escape the ambush with their lives. If there is nothing left to achieve, the Dungeon Master is just taking the long way to slaughter their party.


When looking at any element of a role-playing game session it is extremely important to consider the context and the tone of the adventure that is taking place. If for the last 4 months the players have always put into situation where they can reasonably win (maybe by the slightest of hairs) and they never ran away, retreat may not even cross the players' minds. Not everyone likes tragedies and not every situation should be an “impossible situation”.

This kind of situation also shouldn't feel cheap or forced. It should make sense based on the decisions the players made, the decisions the non-player characters made and the world the Dungeon Master built. In the situation I mentioned earlier from my playing experience, my group was told from level 1 that we will probably not survive and our chances of succeeding on our quest were slightly better. We succeeded in the end, but we did not survive.


I hope that this discussion helps the get the creative juices flowing for running these kinds of impossible situations. They are not easy to run but they can still be used to great effect. Please feel free to share similar situations.


Sealing Hell

Due to failure on the part of the players, a demon army threatens to destroy the entire realm. The players must journey to hell and destroy the [Insert Thing Here] in order to close the demons' method of attack (most likely a portal).

If the players are a level 20 party and have only one spell-caster, they may need to use their one and only 9th level spell to enter hell (either going through the demons' method of attack will be even worse odds or the portal is one way). Acting in this case would put the players in an impossible position. However, they still have options. They can fail or die as heroes. They can also make their way to hell and try to have smaller section of the party deliver the finishing blow on the item as well as hold back the horde for other members of the party to get away. They may also decide that such an approach is too risky and that they should all die together trying to close the portal.

Two Objectives but not Enough Resources

There are two generals that are opposing the army the players are a part of. They have the resources to stage an assassination attempt lead by the players. However, there is only enough resources for one operation and within a week the enemy will attack. Removing both would make the situation far easier for the players but instead they must decide on the best way to weaken their enemy. This is kind of an edge case since I can see it being an impossible situation (we are forcing the players to choose) or simply a more limiting situation.

The City Will Fall

The players have been helping in the defence of a city for a long stretch of time now. They know that sooner or later that the city will fall but are trying to do their best to weaken the enemy, hold for a little longer and are looking for a way to escape and fight another day (hopefully it goes better that time).  

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Dungeon Master: Random Terrain

There are many different kinds of terrain that the Dungeon Master can place to make a location more dynamic than a flat stretch of land. Some of the terrain and hazards can be random in nature and it is this type that I wish to write about today.

Risk vs. Reward

Whenever making anything based on randomness, it is important to keep in mind the risks and rewards of using the feature of the location. If there is too much risk for too little reward, it simply won't be used. If there is too much reward for too little risk, you can be sure it will be used commonly. Unless the players use an ability check to try to get more information about the features, they will have to learn about them through trial and error. The context the terrain is in can also help the players guess its function. The previous terrain can also have a large impact. If the last terrain they encountered was high risk and low reward they may approach all other terrain in the same way.

Internal Consistency

You may have to reuse terrain you created for a different location. When you do, keeping it internally consistent with what you have shown in the world so far is important. They will expect it to act a certain way since they have already encountered it before. If this expectation is broken, it should be for a good reason and also make internal sense.


Short Range Portals

It is easy enough to add a few rifts or portals that allow creatures and players to jump around the area. When doing so, it is important to consider what happens to objects when they enter. Do they go to the other side (you will need to decide how to handle it, especially for spells)? There are also two major choices to make: how are they connected? Are the portals always linked the same way or will it randomly link to all of the other portals in range? Since I'm focusing on randomness, I will choose the random option. If you don't, you can think of the portals as inputs and outputs. This means that if the first portal takes you to the second, the second may not take you back to the first.
We can just make a table for mapping the portals to each-other to handle the decision (numbering the portals will help here). If desired, there can be a random chance that the portal won't take us anywhere if we enter it, forcing the player to leave and re-enter.
This kind of terrain can also be combined with cover to make all kinds of weird motions and attacks. It also gives melee characters a chance to quickly close the distance if the area is quite large.

Wind Squares

Enter the square and get thrown 30 feet into a random direction. We can also add damage if we hit an object (1d6 per 10 feet, minimum of 1d6 even if we hit no object). Putting these into an area with other hazards that enemies can be thrown into further enhance the randomness (this also gives the players a reason to grapple).


There we have 2 random terrain features that can be added to your D&D games. As always I hope it helps and feel free to give feedback.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Dungeon Master: Players as Storytellers

Role-playing games are by their very nature different than other activities. However, at their heart is the idea of telling a story. Every story has at least one story teller and in this article, even though it may seem apparent, I am going talk about who the story tellers are in a role-playing game. I've also mentioned it briefly in other pieces I've written but wanted to get it down explicitly.
The entire point of me writing this comes down to simply stating that the players are also telling part of the story. It may seem straight forward (I've been saying that a lot lately) but it is easy to forget in the moment when Dungeon Mastering. It also has some implications.


If everyone at the table is technically a story teller there are certain. The players create their characters and try to tell their stories and the Dungeon Master writes the stories of the rest of the world. As a result the Dungeon Master opposes and supports the players and together a story is told.
Generally, my players don't like to be railroaded. At the same time, they don't want anything to be possible and want the world to be grounded. These factors usually mean that instead of trying to write a story for the players to live I end up writing my part of the story and let the players write theirs. I write situations and characters but leave the solution to the players when I can. Naturally, if you want to include a puzzle there is going to be only a few solutions. A solution that the Dungeon Master never thought of may also exist and it is part of their job to react to their players' actions. Finding the role the Dungeon Master plays is a tricky thing to do but the realization that the story doesn't only belong to the Dungeon Master is generally a good thing.

Summary in a Single Sentence

A role-playing game session is a collaborative element between all of the story tellers (Dungeon Master and players).