Sunday, 28 June 2015

Dungeon Master: The Element of Time

Time is an important concept of everyday life and a powerful tool in the hands of the Dungeon Master. However, it is a difficult thing to get right. The amount of time to accomplish tasks as well as the actions that the world takes as time passes are extremely important elements that I wish to discuss. This will also partially intersect with my previous article about the world, but there are quite a few things I wasn't able to discuss in that article because of the scope. The main goal will be to inspire thinking on this topic and how it can be used to make unique and exciting campaigns and situations.

Party Resources

The resources available to the party are dependent on the amount of time the party members can spear to gain resources. It may be as small as taking a short rest in D&D 5th edition or as large as going on a multiple year long journey to obtain magic sword number 5 in order to be able to challenge the big bad (alright, that is a bit cliche but still). However, doing so will naturally affect the difficulty for the party to accomplish their task. If the party can rest after tackling a room with no penalty, it may prove too easy if the dungeon was designed to be tackled all at once (it would be just fine if the intent was to go extremely slowly and one room at a time).

There are a few ways that time could play a role. If the players wait around in the dungeon, maybe some monsters will stumble upon them (our good old friend the wandering monster table provides) and prevent their rest. The passage of time has an effect on the world in this case. However, there may be cases where this doesn't make sense such as unintelligent undead not wandering past the rooms they were instructor to stand and guard (giving the players access to more rest). Time could still be an important factor because of external factors such as deadlines or competitors (bad guys could be getting stronger while the players sleep). There could also be cases where you reward caution or simply use the passage of time to bring the world to life (looters get into the dungeon while the players are resting in their camp, clear a couple rooms but then die).


Players will end up losing time when confronted by an enemy army (army battles take time), an overfull river or a thick slab of stone. It's only natural for obstacles to take time away from the players as they overcome them. In such cases it becomes necessary to consider what could happen in that amount of time that the players are occupied. It could be nothing but the consideration needs to be made.

Take for example the situation where after going through a portion of the dungeon, the players hit a solid wall of stone. Picking their way through will take time, if they have the tools and possibly tire them out (you might not have them roll for fatigue after just one such stone wall). If they don't have the right tools to do so, it will take even more time for them to go back to a town and buy supplies (this may not necessarily be the case if it was a passage filled in with rubble instead).

Bring the World to Life

The passage of time can be used as a central point of a campaign (for players who have very long lifetimes and are combating other beings with lifetimes just as long) but it can also be used in order to make the world feel alive. It is very easy to get into a situation in a tabletop role-playing game where the only actions take place in a small radius around the party (this may be even desirable for some grounds). However, it is just as valid to have the entire world moving along as the players work.

Let's use the situation of a big battle as a case study. Right after the battle takes place it will leave an area filled with bodies and equipment. Stories may be told back in the cities the players visit. If the players pass by the same area a few days later and see large grounds of scavengers (grave robbers and carrion eaters alike), it starts to make the world seem like it actually functions. They may come across the same area months later and see necromancers using it as a source of materials for their work, now that the area has become safer. All of this starts to create a story for this tiny area and makes the event all the more meaningful to the players (especially if they are responsible).


The concept of time is a generally interesting concept and it remains so in tabletop role-playing games. It allows the creation of many situations and the exploration of many ideas while in play. I cannot hope to cover every idea or way to do so, but I hope that at the very least this serves as a starting point and inspiration. As always, feel free to comment.  

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Dungeon Master: Keeping Classes Balanced

Maintaining some level of balance between classes is usually a goal for a Dungeon Master. Even small changes and house rules can unintentionally benefit certain classes over another. I hope to put forward some general guidelines to keep classes generally balanced when adding house rules or adding new classes. By no means will this be exhaustive, but I hope to form a starting point. I also hope to explain why I feel some kind of balance is important (in this case, I mean whatever the group considers fair). As usual, I will use D&D 5th edition as my example. The basic assumption here is that the players are happy with the balance currently presented and the Dungeon Master wants to preserve this. 

Why Even Bother?

Classes can't be the exact same in every way. If we do that, we are left with only one class (classless systems have their own advantages, but even there not every character is the same). The rules may inherently favour certain classes that a Dungeon Master may want to fix (this is determined by the gaming group). The changes introduced to fix this skew are made to intentionally shift the balance between classes. The key here is that we want classes to be balanced (balance being whatever the group defines it as) but not homogenized. However, the balance that is created between classes is something that needs to be maintained once we achieve something we are happy with in order to make every class useful. 

Keep in Mind Where Damage Comes From

Magic classes in D&D 5th edition can attack multiple attributes, do multiple types of damage and do a massive amount of damage at once. Non-magic classes do many attacks that do less damage, have generally less types of damage they can do and usually attack AC. When adding a rule that has to do with the amount of damage being done it is important to also think about how the same rule would work for the classes that do many attacks that do less damage as well. If we don't, we risk making some classes stronger than others when we didn't intend it.

This concept extends to certain other aspects of the game such as:
  1. Range vs close quarters combat
  2. The different attack actions in comparison to each other

Not All Classes Are Created Equal

Some classes step on each other's toes. However, if each one has something that makes it attractive and effective they will both be used. They could even be used in the same party and not outshine each other. A classic example for this kind of case is the sorcerer and wizard. This idea needs to always be considered when adding new classes and subclasses.

If we do not have a relative balance between similar classes, we run into a problem. From my experience the weaker classes simply stop being used entirely. This varies depending on the group but eventually there is a point where a class is considered so under-powered enough that no one wants to touch them. If I didn't want players to play a class, I'd probably just not offer it to the players but still use it myself to build NPCs. I've played in games where the original player classes were used only for NPCs and more powerful classes were made and offered for players. Since this fit into the over the top tone of the game, the players (including me) didn't mind and since the weaker classes weren't offered, we couldn't be tricked into playing them.

In D&D 5th edition we run into another related problem. Instead of just having multiple classes we also have different subclasses or paths. The exact same issues are at play here but now it has to do with different types of the same class (at this point, I have never seen anyone want to play a beast master ranger after reading the rules).

Situation Means Everything

Let's assume we have done it. Our group is happy with every class, every subclass and every rule including house rules. Now let's imagine that your party consists of a wizard who loves to blow stuff up, an undead hunting cleric, and a spear wielding fighter who looks like he stepped off a boat following the Trojan war. Some classes will simply be more effective in certain situations. That's fine. I'd argue that actually, that is how it should be. It is still possible to create a campaign that will end up punishing people for playing certain classes or characters. This can sometimes happen accidentally and general I feel it should be avoided. The result is some members of the party will feel useless every single time.

If a Rule Is Meant to Aid Everyone Equally, Make Sure It Does

Some house rules are meant to benefit all classes equally and in such cases it is important to try to avoid affecting the balance between classes when it is not intended. It's obviously easier said than done but at the same time some effort should be taken. I am in favour of having players approve house rules since that way I know the rules are accepted (there are of course exceptions, since some campaigns may be built around certain house rules), especially if it includes a class that a player is using (they may notice something the Dungeon Master won't).


Well, there we have it. It isn't everything that can affect class balance when running a game or adding house rules but at the very least it is a start. If there is any feedback, disagreements or suggestions for important topics I missed, please do comment.  

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Unearthed Arcana: Variant Rules Response

Every month or so, the Unearthed Arcana articles give early versions of potential rules for D&D 5th edition. Up until now I haven't seen anything that would require my commenting. However, the article this month had a bunch of variant rules that I feel I need to comment on. Those of you using other systems than D&D 5th edition will probably not find anything that you can use directly but some of the ideas may still be relevant. Beware: there be math here.

My Issues with Players Make All Rolls

The variant rules presented have a section detailing a method that allows players to make all of the rolls. I have no issue with this idea and in fact I have seen it used before. The main advantage this brings to the players is a sense of tension since they are rolling to hit as well as defend against attacks. However, when making rule changes we should always be careful of unintentionally messing with the probability of success.

First, let me do some math to work out the usual course of events for doing an attack. If we plot the distribution for a d20 we know the average is 10.5 with a maximum value of 20 and a minimum value of 1. We see that on average we are actually adding an extra 0.5 if we take armor class – 10 and then add the roll from our dice. This does not bother me though. Why? If we look at the other side of the attack we have the attacker's bonus + 11. That + 11 is meant to simulate the attacker rolling their dice and getting 10.5 on average. Since we skew both the attacker and defender by 0.5 we haven't really changed anything.

What's my problem then? Looking at the saving roll rules (now called a saving roll check) we see that we take our spell save DC – 8 and then add our roll from the d20. This means that we skew the player's change of success up by a 2.5 bonus or about 12.5%. However, the DM run character sets the DC for the check through their saving throw modifier + 11 (the roll still gives an average of 10.5). This skews the chance of success for the DM run character by 2.5% and means that the spell caster has gotten a 10% more chance of success. This can be fixed however by adding a +2 to the monster or a -2 to the player.

If you want to maintain the balance between spell casting classes and non-spell casting classes, this becomes a rather big issue. However, it gets worse. By the wording of the rules, a tie results in a success for the one rolling (this is how all checks and all other rolls against a DC work). Since the player now win ties, they gain an extra 5% chance of success for defense rolls against normal attacks as well as a 5% chance of successfully harming an enemy with their spell. To maintain the same chance of success we either need to explicitly say that the monster wins ties for defense rolls and saving throw checks or we will need to add an extra +1 to the monster in both cases.

How to Fix This?

  1. Defense roll for a player is d20 + AC – 10 while the DC is attackers attack bonus + 11. Saving throw check for a player is d20 + spell save DC – 10. In the case of a tie, monster wins these two checks.
  2. Defense roll for a player is d20 + AC – 11 while the DC is attackers attack bonus + 11. Saving throw check for a player is d20 + spell save DC – 11. In the case of a tie, the one rolling wins as usual.
There are others ways to fix it, but I feel the above two are the most elegant. To understand the problem, read the last two paragraphs of the above section. My personal favourite solution is the second one since we just need to remember 11 for everything.

My Issues with Vitality

I just don't see how this fixes the problem mentioned. A kobold can still finish off a high level injured fighter. It's an interesting way to add longer recuperation times based on the severity of the injury. However, to prevent this rule from favouring spell casters, we would need to treat all damage made from extra attacks as part of one attack. Doing so will mean that the higher level the players become, the more often they will see themselves lose vitality. In fact, at lower levels it is more likely the player will be outright dead than notice a loss of vitality.

I also feel that if the aim was to increase time to recuperate after sustaining injuries, doing so through an element already in the game such as the hit dice would be more efficient. Preventing instant healing from long rests and instead forcing hit dice use would seem like a better way to me. We can also play with the rate hit dice are regained until we are happy. In this case, there will be no outright death from lack of hit dice since players spend them.


While I generally didn't have an issue with the goals of the rules and the ideas presented, I had a few issues regarding the math and goal of the two variant rules I mentioned. There was also a section talking about alignment, but I had no issue with it. I also plan to talk about alignment in the future. As always, I hope this helps and feel free to point out any issues with my interpretations or my math.  

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Dungeon Master: Arrows of Randomness

Part of the fun of magic items comes from wackiness and wonder. There is something particularly interesting about a magic item that the wielder can't trust. Naturally, fostering this kind of un-trust between magic weapons and players can take a few different forms. I, however, will focus on the use of randomness to create such an item. I will do so by putting forward an example that is aimed at 5th edition D&D but the general concept is not restricted to just one rules system. It can also be used on any kind of weapon, but I will focus purely on arrows.

Magic Arrows of Randomness

Feel free to chance the name to something more epic and setting appropriate, but I feel this name does a perfect job of explaining exactly what the item is.

Roll Effect
1 1d6 fire damage
2 1d6 cold damage
3 1d6 lightning damage
4 1d6 necrotic damage
5 1d6 acid damage
6 Arrow does no damage and heals 1d8 hit points

There we have it. Since there is a much greater chance to do extra damage it is unlikely that the player will notice the possibly of healing their enemy until after using the arrows for some time. However, when they finally do notice that their arrow actually healed their opponent it creates the correct conditions for distrust between the user and the arrows. If your players are risk takers, it also allows your players to try to heal each other by shooting each other in the face with an arrow (this was an unintentional side effect that came up during play).

The World

From my experience, this kind of magic item works best when used sparingly or when the entire world is made in such a way as to create distrust between the people of the world and magic. If it is used sparingly, the surprise is still kept. If the entire world is built around making magic an inherently risky and wacky thing, having items that embrace randomness in this way fit perfectly into that style of setting.