Sunday, 27 September 2015

Dungeon Master: Death Rules

Over the course of role-playing game history, there have been many different methods to decide when a character dies. However, taking D&D as an example, typically there is only one system. For anyone who has been reading my earlier posts, I tend to think that the rules should fit the game that the Dungeon Master is trying to create. For this reason, I'll go over a few different ways to handle death (this is mainly meant for newer players that didn't experience other editions and their death rules). I will avoid talking about ways you can eliminate death complete since I will be handling that in a different post. It will be mainly focused on D&D. 

Dead is Dead

There is always the classic old D&D of less than 0 hit points being dead. It's simple, but it may result in a lot of character creation. From what I've seen, this has become less popular over time. It does a very good job of creating tension for death. There's not much else to say.

More Deadly

The current D&D 5th edition system is fine, but as you get to high levels the odds of having an instant death become less and less. This is because as your total health increases, the amount of damage you need to take past 0 to instantly die increases. If you don't like that, you can easily scale it in a different way. Care needs to be taken to avoid making lower levels deadlier if not intended. I generally find the best way is to either use the original rules (this means players don't instantly die at higher levels unless they suffer extremely large such as a fall or the breathe weapon of a powerful dragon).

Less Deadly

If the deadliness of low level play isn't your thing, it's easy to house rule to be a little more forgiving. Just ignore the instant death rule and roll saves. I prefer to use the standard method located in the rules but hey, this works just fine too.


The overall level of the party will make a difference. A higher level party that has access to spells that revive the dead may be perfectly fine with more deadly rules from the onset, though they may needed added magic items to revive the cleric if something happens. The rules for death need to be taken into account along with the intended mood as well as the other parts of the game. Stricter death rules combined with more magic items for the party make for a completely different experience (in an undead setting where the dead and dying are almost instantly corrupted to unlife, this may help build the tension and fear).

Sunday, 20 September 2015

D&D 5th Edition Stealth Issues

 Well, I did promise that I'd talk about D&D 5th edition's stealth system. So, let's get right to it (naturally this will be system specific). Also, I'll be using some of the stuff I mentioned here.

Group Stealth Checks

Group stealth checks aren't really mentioned in the rules as they are presented. At the same time, some adventures sometimes use group stealth checks. On one hand, you can argue that a group stealth check makes sense since the stealthier characters can plot out paths that will attract the least attention. On the other, they can make sneaking easier in some circumstances (two stealthy characters together). The easy solutions is to set a minimum number of people to use a group check as well as a maximum number of people (if there are 10000 of you, they will see you) or just leave it as is.

What Does That Say?

I've been reading and rereading the stealth rules for this edition of D&D and ... I've basically given up running them as written and just cobble together my own system. The other activities section (page 65 of the basic rules) for traveling says that when a player is doing an alternate activity, they don't contribute their perception checks to the group. Does this someone performing an alternate activity get instantly surprised or is there some unmentioned way for characters who don't notice the stealthy enemy to be warned by their allies? I like the idea of being able to warn the rest of the party (fail the stealth check by 5 or more for example?).


The expertise rogue feature on perception and stealth checks gives a massive advantage to those checks (when combined with other features, it gives them a very impressive minimum value for stealth checks). If the party ever faces similar characters (especially if the Dungeon Master tries to build a rogue using the player rules for the party to face), there is a large chance they will be surprised. I've seen almost the entire party take the alertness feat just to avoid it in games that involves a lot of stealth.


A solution for this isn't really that easy. It seems the intention in this edition is for the Dungeon Master to determine when surprise is appropriate as well as when it makes sense for characters to sneak past. There is nothing wrong with that but as written it can make things rather strange. To help some people out, here are some options:

  1. Failing a stealth check by 5 or more allows that character to warn the rest of their group (solves the case when players do other tasks too)
  2. Group checks are allowed for a group to sneak. Their check is equal to the the middle value. In the case of an even number of characters, go up (in a group of 4, the second highest value is the groups result in cases where the value is needed for later)

Areas like rogue's expertise are more challenging and need to be decided with the rogue player themselves. You could also decide that it is fine as it is, but I still find it kind of weird in it's current form at high level play.  

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Dungeon Master: Stealth

If you play any table top role-playing game for long enough, someone is going to want to try to sneak by something. However, I generally find stealth rules to be written in such a way that they need to either be decoded or completely replaced (inspired by me trying to figure out the D&D 5th edition stealth system). For this reason I hope to write down the considerations I go through when I think about a stealth system and designing a stealth system. Hopefully it helps someone out there. Next week I'll look at the D&D 5th edition's stealth system in particular and address some of the weird things I see there.

Case by Case

When we are talking about a stealth system, I find there are some very specific situations that we can list and examine. These situations, when combined with some kind of decision mechanism such as dice rolls, effectively make up the stealth system itself. The basic cases I am talking about are:
  1. What happens when the character(s) has successfully achieved “stealth”?
  2. What happens when the character(s) has failed to achieve “stealth” when trying to?
  3. What happens when some of the characters have failed to achieve stealth while the others have?
  4. What happens if both groups achieve “stealth”?

Achieving Stealth

The rules for achieving stealth as an individual or as a group can vary. For example, using D&D 5th edition, we can force every person to roll a stealth check when trying to sneak as a group or we can try to use a group check. A group check would improve the party's odds of success. This kind of decision from the Dungeon Master will then in turn have an effect on how often the party tries to sneak (it may make sense to give an easier time for players trying to sneak past enemies in a campaign where there are many enemies stronger than them).

Once stealth is achieved, what does that actually mean? There are many different benefits that can be provided from a small bonus to the first attack and the ability to sneak away to giving an entire extra round of combat through “surprise” (like D&D 5th edition). In the D&D 5th edition example, you can even choose to house rule it so that when a character surprises another character, they have advantage (A surprises B, A has advantage when attacking B).

Failing to Achieve Stealth

There can be a number of different things that can happen if a character trying to sneak past another is discovered. In games like D&D 5th edition, there is already an opportunities cost associated with stealth since you need to be moving slowly. However, there can be other penalties added such as acting later in the round (a smart enemy might be able to attack someone who thinks they are hiding).

Only Some Achieving Stealth

If some members of the party manage to be stealthy enough to avoid a threat while others are noticed, there are a number of things that can happen. Two examples are that the entire party will be noticed but the enemy may be surprised by the hidden characters (this is the D&D 5th edition method) or that the members that managed to hide are not visible to the enemy while the ones that were noticed are visible (this means they will be attacked where as the ones who managed to hide aren't visible). When designing or modifying a stealth system the intended outcome of such a situation needs to be considered as side effects can occur. If only part of the party will be targeted because the rest is hiding, it may be beneficial for the party over all but increase the risk for those who aren't noticed. If done in a certain way, it can actually create a situation where players avoid stealth because it doesn't give enough advantage or where no matter what they try to sneak because it is so advantageous and accessible.

No-one Sees Each-other

Play D&D long enough and you may run into a situation where both sides are sneaky enough not to be seen by the other. Typically, in such a situation it is the Dungeon Master's job to decide what happens. If the two groups don't see each-other but still move towards each-other, they may eventually collide (sometimes literally). The two groups may also pass without incident. If desired, the Dungeon Master could also add concrete rules such as, “two groups within a certain range of each-other (50 feet) will see each-other regardless of sneaking ability when they are in grassy plains”. Because of these options, this case still needs to be considered when running or designing a stealth system (even if no rules are explicitly present).  

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Dungeons & Dragons: Out of the Abyss Early Review

  • 255 pages long with 215 of the pages directly dealing with the adventure (not counting creatures, items, etc.)
  • Grants the Dungeon Master and players a lot of freedom
  • Quite a few nice dungeons
  • Lots of full colour art (as we have come to expect of this edition)
  • Locations in the Underdark, important characters found there and creatures described in detail (quite a few tables)

Could Go Either Way:
  • A big cast of characters can end up joining the party in the second half of the adventure (running this, especially in combat, can be a bit of a challenge especially for an inexperienced group)
  • Certain parts of this adventure can be quite challenging and may even result in players needing to flee from danger (players should be aware and okay with this)
  • It's set in the Forgotten Realms and the Underdark in particular (for you Forgotten Realms haters)
  • No combat grid resources included
  • Requires significant Dungeon Master preparation
  • No supplement
  • No PDF*

* Denotes nitpicking.
Cover art of Out of the Abyss
Cover art of Out of the Abyss. Who wants to take a shot at him first?


Out of the Abyss is an epic scale adventure set to be released on September 15th, 2015. In this adventure, prepare to face demons of awesome power in the depths of the Underdark. 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 will update this post if new things are released as well to add my final comments after I finish the adventure.

Other Information

At the time of writing this, I have read through the book cover to cover and have run 3 chapters of the adventure. My group has played D&D for a while now and generally feels comfortable with the current version. We usually either play in a home brew setting or the Forgotten Realms, though all of us have experience from the other classic settings outside the group. The group in general is really fond of the Underdark and were very happy to be back.

I have generally enjoyed running and reading this adventure so far and will do my best not to spoil much of it. This will mean I will avoid talking about plot points and the important story elements but will still talk about locations and other parts of the adventure that don't ruin the story.

The Adventure

New Monsters

There are a few new monsters in this adventure and they tend to mostly fill out the lower levels as well as the really high levels. When possible, this adventure tries to use existing creatures and modify them if needed. Since a supplement is not provided, it makes running this adventure a little bit more challenging since you will have to find the creature in the Monster Manual and then modify it.

What You Need to Play

The adventures before this one had a supplement that was provided on the website and contained creatures and items needed to run the adventure from the Monster Manual and Dungeon Master's Guide respectively. Here, however, there are references made to the Monster Manual and Dungeon Master's Guide so you will have to own both of them in order to run the adventure as printed (this is quite a disappointment for me since I saw the ability to run an adventure simply using the basic rules and supplement to be convenient and welcome). 

The Adventure Itself

The adventure is meant to take players from level 1 to level 15 and starts off right in the thick of it. Players start as drow prisoners and the story unfolds from there. This particular plot point can be changed if desired but works really well in the general context of the adventure. It is best handled with lower level player characters as well. Out of the gate it was obvious to me that a lot of care went into the non-player characters of this adventure. Not only is this a case for the players' enemies but also for their allies who create some very interesting situations. There is still room to improvise on top of what is written and I found the cast of side characters to be one of the most entertaining and interesting in this edition. The total number of non-player characters can get a little difficult to manage especially since they take part in combat.

215 of the 255 pages detail the chapters and story of the adventure. This adventure in particular seems to focus a lot less on dungeons than Princes of the Apocalypse. A lot of the page count is devoted to showing off locations such as cities and towns as well as their unique characteristics and residents. That's not to say that it avoids dungeons completely as there are quite a few rather well planned dungeons. There are a few tricks hidden in the dungeons that may give less experienced players a hard time but I feel that it isn't reason enough to avoid running inexperienced players through this adventure (instead, think of ways to provide hints if they really need them).

Quite a lot of the environments and artwork in this adventure feature darkness. 

The way locations are handled as well as how characters are laid out is really where this adventure does an amazing job. A lot of freedom is given to the Dungeon Master to portray the non-player characters as they wish while still giving a good idea of what they want and are after, making them that much easier to play. The way locations are presented, described and play a part in events really does help make them memorable. There are locations that I can't wait to Dungeon Master. There were also times where I forgot I was reading an adventure and instead got lost in it as an Underdark supplement.

There are a few elements of the adventure that are a little hard to change (the opening I mentioned earlier is an example) but still possible. Overall, a lot of control is put into the hands of the players and what they wish to do. Many parts of the adventure foresee the possibility of players going a different way and provide advise on how to handle it. Still, not every situation is mentioned and even some situations which are acknowledged are not fully described. I don't see this as too big of a problem since in these cases it seemed obvious to me that not every situation could be predicted. These possibilities should be considered when preparing and running the adventure.

The adventure itself is split into two parts. The first part gives player a lot of options of where they want to go and provides for some very impressive scenes. Think demon lord worthy. The second part can be used to drop a level 7-8 party in. I wouldn't really recommend this if possible since you'll be missing out on the first half of the adventure. However, a lot of the material in this book (including the first half) can be used easily to run other kinds of Underdark campaigns. I plan to use it as a reference if my players ever go into the Underdark again.

The adventure has a lot of random encounter tables that are specific for the regions they are dealing with. There are also many planned encounters that help create important, interesting and memorable set pieces. There is often a lot of emphasis on terrain and location. However, players need to know that they might not be able to tackle every fight. Poor planning and bad luck on the players' side can turn planned and random encounters into difficult situations. Still, there are many opportunities to avoid conflict through many different ways including group checks (there are quite a few stealth group checks in this adventure) so it's not like these situations are unavoidable. There does seem to be an emphasis on making the Underdark a dangerous place full of threats that will quickly dispatch the party as well as threats that will take their sweet time to slowly take them down.

I don't want to give away too much about the demon lords and how they feature in this adventure because I liked how they appear and were handled. They are powerful and they aren't afraid of showing it off in ways players won't soon forget. However, since we are dealing with demons and madness, there are rules that deal with madness being used throughout this adventure that serve to make the adventure even more difficult. It is one of the main themes of the adventure and I was a fan of how it touched even supporting role characters.

If there is anything to really complain about, it is the overall story as written. Even though it can be run as a truly amazing adventure, there are certain plot points that may seem a bit overused even if they have the potential for a twist. I personally didn't have too much of a problem with it and believe that, even though opinions on an overall plot are subjective, you can change and make it work using the freedom the adventure gives you. I'd even go as far as saying that it is good, but I'm not sure it's so good that it will have no critics.

The Art and Book Build Quality

Gracklstugh image from Out of the Abyss
One of many environment pictures present in the adventure. My pictures really don't do it justice and there are many other great looking ones.

I found the art throughout this book to be quite nice. I really liked the images of locations in particular as they struck that balance between realism and painting aesthetic that I like. Other images, such as those of characters have a similar painting-like aesthetic like those we have seen in other books released in this edition. When comparing it to the cover of Princes of the Apocalypse, the art work throughout the book and even the cover feels more in line with the painting aesthetic I mentioned earlier (while fine, I found the cover of Princes of the Apocalypse to be in a style I don't like as much).

The book itself is nicely bounded and the pages are the same quality we have come to expect. 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. I didn't notice much rippling either but remember to look for it if it bothers you. I was happy to see that no pages were stuck to each-other, but if that is something that bothers you I'd recommend to look for that if you are buying it from a bookstore.

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”). I also thought that the layout was effective.


For the suggested retail price of this product, you can check here. When I last checked the prices were $50 in the States and $63.95 in Canada (you poor Canadians). I was able to find it for as low as 31.30 at Barnes & Noble and 40.09 at the Canadian Chapters (I'm sorry Canada).

What I felt was Missing

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

If you plan to run the combat on a grid, you will have to figure it out yourself or buy it from a third party, as seems to be the pattern in this edition (I usually just do everything myself so I can't vouch for the quality of the third party accessories or even if they have everything you'll need). There are no grids provided with the adventure or in the online materials. The maps themselves tend to have detailed images or well fleshed out descriptions making setting up the contents of a room a lot easier than having nothing at all. Still, in some cases, expect to need to take some time to furnish rooms or locations if no details are given.

For Inexperienced Dungeon Masters

Out of all the adventures released so far in this edition, this may be one of the most challenging to rule for a new Dungeon Master. It is still possible to do so but the main difficulty comes from the preparation that will need to go into making this adventure shine as well as managing all of the characters you will need to play as and interact as with your players. It will become only worse if your players will do something very creative and force you to improvise as a new Dungeon Master. There is a lot that they can do in various situations and while many of their options and outcomes are mentioned, the Dungeon Master will still need to flesh them out.

If your players like using grids, there will be more prep work for you as you will need to create the important dungeon rooms and populate them. This isn't that hard if you are experienced, but you should have a rough idea of what will be in the room (sketches made while reading and planning help).

I still think a first time Dungeon Master who is committed can make this adventure shine. Still, it will require a lot of planning and willingness to role-play a huge cast of characters as well as possibly improvising. If this seems like a lot to prepare for at once, consider breaking it down into chapters or two where you will write full notes for that chapter (you will need to reference other chapters to make sure things will fit together at a high level) and then run those chapters instead of compiling everything at once. It may not fit together as well as planning everything at once but it's important not to be overwhelmed so that you can make the current part being played as good as you can (it's easy to try and railroad players if you plan too much as well).


At this point this adventure looks to be one of my favourites of this edition. The Underdark is made into the dangerous and foreign place it deserves, the demon lords are showing their muscles and the adventure provides many different avenues for players to take. The detail and care given to the Underdark make it almost a supplement in its own right. The major disappointment in the adventure comes from the lack of supplement. This means the basic rules and the adventure are not enough to run this adventure and you will have to own the Monster Manual and Dungeon Master's Guide. The main issues of this adventure are the same ones that confront any adventure and that is, “do I need this if I already have a bunch from every other edition?”, “do I like the story?” and “is it worth the money?” (the suggest price in particular may be hard to swallow if you already own tons of adventures). As always these are subjective but out of all the adventures released for this edition of Dungeons & Dragons, Out of the Abyss is certainly one of my favourites.

Other Stuff

  • Over the course of my reading of the adventure, I found 10 examples of what I would call errors. None of them were major or impeded my understanding of the material and tending to be extremely minor issues like typos.
  • The adventure doesn't provide anything new for players to use during character creation besides a few new background features and some bonds. Because of this there is no risk of tipping character class balance.
  • This adventure had a cool trailer

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.