Sunday, 25 December 2016

Dungeon Master: Creature Twists

I recently wrote about bosses in tabletop role-playing games and one of the things I mentioned was using twists. What I meant by twists was some kind of monster ability that changes the tactical situation. I only devoted a little bit of time to twists then and I hope to expand on it now. Remember that these kinds of twists are different than a plot twist.

When Is It Needed?

The most common times I see I need to add a twist is when there is a “boss” or when the encounter is composed of a horde of the same creature. When it's a horde, finding a few different creatures can go a long way to helping remove this kind of problem, assuming the added creatures are reasonably complex enough or result in different tactics. The other things I mentioned in my previous article still apply and can be used instead of or along with twists. You should also consider them in situations when you want to expose your players to something new.

Not Only For Bosses

Boss fights aren't the only time an encounter can turn into a slog. Adding a bit of variety to the enemies players face can greatly change the feeling of an encounter. It might make sense to throw as many skeletons as your party is big. However, do this a couple of times and it can get old without twists.

Don't Forget About What's Already There

I've seen often that a Dungeon Master, especially when starting out, will forget about the actions presented in the Player's Handbook. A couple of big ones such as hide and disengage are rarely forgotten but many of the others are. Allowing your horde of zombies to grapple players instead of just throwing attack after attack opens many tactical options. There is also something unsettling for players to see their fighter in the front rank pulled back by zombies, opening a path to the delicious wizard right behind (every zombie knows that wizards taste better). Remembering these options is particularly important for creatures that have fewer options in their stat blocks (zombies are one such example). There are also some items that already open up new tactics for enemies and players. Just also remember that these items may fall into the players hands, opening up new tactics for them too.

The current rules already give something similar to legendary creatures through the use of legendary actions and lair actions when in their lairs. Doing something similar can help change things up. Make sure these new actions aren't all similar though or you'll run into a similar problem through overuse. They also won't be as special and impressive when they do show up. Keeping legendary and lair actions rare helps to keep them legendary instead of commonplace.


One of the most common methods I've seen to add a twist to a character is to play with how they can move. Flight, teleportation, and becoming incorporeal all allow a creature to have a very different movement style. They also prevent the party from cornering the creature and hitting it until it dies. The creature will be able to escape a turn later (in the case of flight it might need to make a trade for some attacks of opportunity).

Tactical Options

Does the creature want to do a lot of damage to one target or less to multiple? Does it want to do a lot of damage or send a player flying through the air, giving the creature some distance as well as leaving the player prone when they land (maybe let the player roll to land on their feet)? Maybe the creature gets advantage for having an ally close by. The idea is that the creature needs to make a choice between effective alternatives. These alternatives can be situational. If they are it means that the players may need to alter their play style in order to prevent their enemy from using their ability. Also don't forget that standard actions aren't the only kind of action. Bonus actions and reactions can also be played with in order to make new interesting and challenging encounters.

Game Changers

If you look through some of the classic D&D creatures, you'll find there are some abilities that completely change how encounters go. Medusas are a classic example of a creature that completely change how an encounter needs to be approached due to their special abilities. I'd also include abilities such as “Frightful Presence” and auras in this class as well. The end result is that the ability incentives a certain kind of play, forces a choice between different disadvantages (turn to stone or be unable to see the medusa), or forces a puzzle to be solved (using a reflective surface against a medusa).

Too Many

While it can be very useful for making an encounter different, this kind of thing inherently adds complexity on the side of the Dungeon Master. If you are putting your party against 12 skeletons, having 12 different twists and keeping track of them all is usually not feasible because of how much work it. Having 4 skeletons all using the same twist can be enough. Remember to keep in mind the trade-off between making the encounter more complex through things such as twists and the difficulty of running the encounter.  

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Dungeon Master: Boss Battles

Play video games for a little bit of time and you'll probably run into a boss battle. In tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons, there might be times that a party will end up taking on a single creature or bad guy. Often times it happens to be a dragon. People who are used to video games might find it natural to throw in a boss fight. However, they are some of the hardest encounters to design and run. It's easy for the players to just steam roll the poor lonely creature or to turn the encounter into an overlong test of endurance instead of an interesting fight. With this in mind, I hope to present some of what I've seen on this topic. 

They Aren't That Great in Video Games

I'd argue that most boss battles in video games aren't very good. There are a few that might be well designed and fun but from my experience there are many more that are a slog to get through at best. If you come from mainly a video game background, don't feel like you need to have one. Some creatures will prefer to go in groups. There is nothing wrong with that. Even “bosses” in games often appear with minions. Don't force them in just because it's a convention in video games, and a convention I feel fails more than it succeeds. You can boil down this advice to “why bother?” but I'd argue that isn't such bad advice. Don't have one for the sake of having one. A possibly deadly encounter that propels the story forward can be done in many different ways, and it is what we should be aiming for.

Sometimes It's Unavoidable

Some creatures and some people prefer to be alone. When given the option, players will try to go about their business as safely as possible. As such, it really shouldn't be a surprise if players try to corner a big bad when they are on their own. It really only makes sense. However, doing so can force us into a “boss” fight. If the party worked for that opportunity, it could be very reasonable to let the players have an easier battle. It could also be very reasonable to let the party gang up on the target. If not, the “boss” has their own strategies they can employ to try and turn the odds better (call guards, escape, summon creatures using magic/items, find a good tactical position, etc.). They may try to run away when they realize they got into such a difficult situation. This results in a change from beating on a bag of hit points to trying to chase and corner the big bad. What this tries to do is change things from a slog to a different kind of situation.

Less Room For Error

Games have a number of things that are different than tabletop role-playing games. Saving and loading means that the margin of error for players can be far smaller in a video game than a tabletop one. You don't have the luxury of reloading and I find players prefer to move forward instead of being stuck anyway. Chance, however, still plays a big role in tabletop role-playing games and it means the tide of battle could turn against the players through no fault of their own. For this reason, be careful with constructing encounters where the math could easily go either way. At the same time, remember that players will need to discover the weaknesses of their enemies as well as tactics as they are playing. This means we can't expect the kind of perfect play we could if reloading was possible. A player who's already failed a couple of times can jump straight to the tactic that works: our players can't.

Bag of Hit Points

The usual failure I see from “bosses” is that it devolves into the boss being surrounded and beaten until dying. Combat encounters tend to be most interesting when things change from round to round and as a result tactical options are presented. These options mean decisions need to be made and weighed. Avoiding this pitfall is usually done by adding some kind of “twists” to the boss (maybe they can teleport away when surrounded, have special actions such as legendary actions or lair actions, they can fly, they can try to keep the party at range, etc.), adding support for the boss through goons (also known as henchmen, minions, etc.), creating an environment that allows for many tactics or has its own twists, or adding other goals to the encounter. The advice involving adding more creatures to the encounter kind of moves it from a “boss battle” and more into a dangerous and story important encounter. I don't see the problem when the encounter is fun and allows for more options.

Damage Out

A party of adventurers can do a lot of damage in one round. If the “boss” only has one attack, it will probably have difficulty keeping pace. It's my interpretation that this is one of the reasons legendary creatures get legendary actions (and lair actions when in their lair) in Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. These extra actions give the legendary creature more attacks per turn and help it to keep pace. If you take a non-legendary creature and run it as a “boss”, you might see that the encounter is easier than challenge rating might seem to show because of this. You might also see that it's harder than expected because the creature had an ability that lets it hit above its rating (intellect devourer can be hard to take down without at least one death even at higher level).

Enemy Twists

A wide range of things can be given to a “boss” to help make them more interesting. I typically call them twists since they change encounters from what otherwise would be expected. Flying, and teleporting are ones I've seen commonly used. These two options give the “boss” more tactics they can employ and also help prevent being permanently surrounded and beaten into submission. There are many other twists you can employ. Giving a particular item to the boss (item to turn them invisible, etc.) is often the way chosen to add this twist. However, the item needs to add something significant. A few +1s here and there isn't enough to change the tactical considerations. You also need to account for the item possibly falling into the hands of your players. Legendary actions and lair actions are elements that I would describe as being very twist like and they are already in D&D 5th edition. However, you might want to add more or add some more craziness to keep things interesting.


Adding more targets is an easy way to get around the surrounded “boss” issue. The minions allow for more complex tactics, different targets, and force players to work to get close to the boss in order to surround them. It also means that the “boss” doesn't need as many hit points to be a challenge since some of the damage is being shifted to the henchmen. There are many ways to do so. If in combat, the “boss” might call for help from nearby. If the players snuck into the big bad's tent to try and assassinate them, such a move is very reasonable. There are also magical means to gain allies. Powerful demons can summon weaker demons to help them and a necromancer might be able to raise some nearby skeletons to help out. They don't all have to come at once, as the calling for backup example shows. Doing so forces a bit of a time limit on players since they need to take care of the “boss” before too many reinforcements come.


The area that an encounter takes place in allows for different tactics. The way players act in a 10 foot wide tunnel will be different than a dense forest, or a desert. Hazards such as large drops (for throwing people into), lava, fires, and flowing water (doubly so for vampires) again provide more tactical options for players. The environment is also tied into how well both players and creatures can employ stealth, cover and flanking.

What's the Goal?

The goal in an encounter is important. The goal in an encounter might not simply be “hit the boss until it dies”. The more general goal of “sending the evil being back from where it came” allows different options. Can they dispel it? Can they trap it in an item or use an item to weaken it (obtaining the item involves a large quest but renders the final boss battle easier)? Can they interrupt the ritual before its finished, meaning the “boss” will just fade away? All of these are aimed at fighting the bad guy directly. Maybe just keeping them busy for long enough to free the prisoners and trapping them in the cave will be enough. However, in this case, freeing the prisoners could be the main goal. This change forces tactics to be different, especially if the bad guy will try to kill or take the prisoners hostage when they realize what is going on.

Player Side

You don't have to focus only on the side of the enemies. Giving your players an extra option or two in combat helps make things more interesting. Many of the things I mentioned earlier such as environment and goals will affect both sides. Even something like a necklace of fireball with a single bead can greatly change the methods employed in an encounter. If players have more options and are better equipped, you can also safely throw more at them.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Modular Inn – Map-Tile Set Review

Review copy of Modular Inn – Map-Tile Set courtesy of Black Scroll Games.

  • Made for the 1 inch is 5 feet standard scale.
  • Beautifully done inn tiles. The lighting from candles and windows is very well done.
  • There are 55 different tile images here (not including doors, walls and corners), 30 of which are populated with items (the other 25 are empty in order to allow you to allow to populate them yourself using printed items though quite a few of these are variations with different lighting)
  • Door pieces, wall pieces and corner pieces allow for open walls and not filled in corners to be filled in and result in a better looking final result.
  • The set, as the name “Modular Inn” suggests, is modular and allows for many different combinations.
  • VTT use is considered and files for that specific purpose are provided in .jpg form.
  • Draft tiles are provided in order to plan out an inn before printing a large number of tiles.

Could Go Either Way
  • I personally really like the 3D style that Black Scroll Games uses for their terrain but it might not be your thing if you prefer a 2D art style.
  • Your campaign might not include combat in an inn, which isn't as common as a classic dungeon, and as a result you may prefer to role-play through the situation and not use a combat map. You could still use it to map out your inn, but it wouldn't be as useful. If you are planning some combat encounters indoors, this set will look a lot more tempting.

  • The great lighting, which gives the set a great daytime appearance, doesn't work for night.
  • There isn't a staircase going down tile (you can get around this by using the staircase tile that's present and overlapping it with another, but for more complete workaround see below).


On December 6th 2016, Black Scroll Games released a set of tiles to help Game Masters easily create inns for their tabletop games called Modular Inn – Map-Tile Set. These new inn tiles are in the same 3D style as The Keeper of the Realms, which I reviewed earlier and liked. It was perfect timing too, since I got them in time for a D&D game that involved an inn combat encounter.

The Tiles

There is quite a large variety of tiles included in the set. From bathroom to kitchen, the common rooms you can think of are here. The more exhaustive list is kitchen, bar, cellar, bathroom, fireplace, stable, bath, table and chair in the open, and fireplace. Some of these also have different variations, resulting in 30 different tiles populated with items. There are also staircase tiles that show stairs going up a floor. There isn't one for staircases going down, which makes it a little difficult to make a second floor that mirrors the first. However, I was able to get around this by covering everything but the staircase on the staircase tile with the other tile I wanted to use and then covering one row with the next tile (this is to keep the same number of squares). You could also leave one of the walls open, representing where the staircase would be, and overlap one row of squares afterwards so that they match. As long as the overlap doesn't produce odd results, you can get away with this. Just like with The Keeper of the Realms, empty versions of the tiles are provided as well. This allows you to decorate the room yourself if you'd like.

The tiles are detailed nicely and there is some serious attention to detail. Extra doors are provided in order to provide easy entrance to other rooms you might attach. There are also corner pieces added, which are a really great idea. Since the set is 3D, the outer edges of the map are the walls in perspective. This means that when you combine tiles, there will be a gap between the beams in some cases and the corner pieces fill this part in. Similarly, there are also wall pieces that allow walls to be added to any of the tiles present.

In the files there is also an option to use a less vibrant colour overlay. It gives the tiles a different look when used and in the case of tiles with windows, gives it a cloudy day look. Light still comes through the windows in this setting though. I like having the option between the two though.

There are smaller draft tiles with references to the pages where the full sized tiles can be found. If you don't want to print everything in one go and only want to grab what you need to save colour ink or something, this is very handy.

The Art

The tiles themselves look very good. Just look at the sample images here. The 3D style adds a perspective that really gives the tiles a sense of depth even though they were on paper. The lighting also adds to this while also looking very nice. Some tiles have windows that let sunlight in. This sunlight is rendered and further helps to give the tiles a sense of depth. The stables in particular have strands of light coming from outside through the wood and they really add something to the appearance as well.

The grids aren't obvious on this tile even though they are meant to be used with the standard 1 inch is 5 feet miniatures. This means that the stone floor components are visibly rough as you'd expect from stonework, even though they do conform to a grid. The result is that the grids fade into the artwork. The wooden floor components use the same style where one of the 5 feet section may be made of multiple smaller planks.

Other Considerations

Inns aren't as common a site for combat as an underground dungeon is from my experience. However, if you are planning to run a few inn or indoor encounters, this set will look very tempting. The tiles can be quite easily used for the interiors of houses, particularly bigger ones. Instead of an inn, you can use it for a rich person's big house or for a feasting hall. For smaller sized houses, you can quite easily combine the kitchen tile with another tile and form a small house (for space reasons the owner might roll out their bed on the ground at night). This doesn't work in all cases though because some tiles have too many tables. The bedroom tiles also have 2 beds, but if you need to you can always cut these out yourself from a full tile and place them in the room if you bought the PDF version. The down side is that it wastes some ink.

What I felt Was Missing

Often when players finally reach an inn, it's night time. A fair number of the tiles have windows and show sunlight coming through. You can use the reduced saturation option to try to make it look more like night time and rationalize that the light is moonlight, but I don't think it's a perfect solution since it seems a bit too bright still. It would have been nice if the rooms had windowless versions as well and windows could be placed the same way the doors can. These windows could then be made dark and these windowless tiles could be used for both windowless rooms and dark times of day. This may be unreasonable for the printed sets but would have made for a welcome addition to the PDF document.

As mentioned earlier, there isn't a staircase going down tile or cut-out. This makes it harder to mirror the first floor in the second floor. This means you either need to get clever with covering up parts of one tile with another to have things match, just remember that the first row of a particular tile would be the stairs, or design your inn in a way to account for this (have the main area have a high ceiling and have the rooms be over the kitchen and behind the bar). I also thought it would be nice to have a ladder alternative for the cellar since it would be helpful to make the interiors of smaller houses.

The empty tiles are a nice option. However, the tiles have some very nice items that would have been very nice and useful to be able to place myself. The ones off the top of my head that come to mind would be tables, chairs, chests, boxes, and beds. Having these would allow for basically any interior area to be made. This probably would have also been unreasonable for the printed set. This isn't that big of a deal because I can still cut these features out myself though it would be a bit inefficient from an ink perspective. It also doesn't matter if you have these things from another source, such as 3D printed items or a different set. 


The price is posted here. At the time of writing, it's $7.95 for the PDF, 19.99 for a physical printed copy and 19.99 for both a PDF version and physically printed copy. Black Scroll Games occasionally have some deals as well, which may be worth keeping an eye out for if you feel the price is too high.


This is a really good inn set despite a couple of things that hold it back from being my ideal set. Having a going down staircase piece, some options for night time, and including some of the items used on the tiles to help populate the blank tiles would have left me with no complaints. It doesn't stop the set from being a very good set for making inns, especially if you like the Black Scroll Games 3D art style. The number of tiles (55 in total, 30 of which are populated with items), the details, the art, the .jpeg files for VTT use, and the lighting effects all help make this a good set in my eyes. I'll be using it going forward when I need an inn encounter. I recommend a look at the images provided on the product page to help decide. 

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Dungeon Master: Rewards

As players achieve objectives, destroy enemies, and manage to loot their way from start to end of an adventure, they get rewards. Money and treasure are the most common types of awards but there are others that can be given as well. I hope to list a few different options in the hopes that it will help someone out there.

Items and Money

Paying people in goods (including magic items) or money is extremely common. It's the default reward system in most role-playing games. For this particular section, I am referring to a one time payment.


When you make powerful friends, it makes sense that you might be able to call in a favour. Paying off a massive gambling debt, joining on the players' side in a battle, or presenting lavish presents every now and then are all examples I've seen in the games I've run and played in. Depending on how friendly the source of the favour is, there could also be conditions attached.


You might not be able to spend it on anything you want, but from your family or other connections there might be a certain amount of money set aside for necessary things. The most common form in the games I've played in is a living allowance (basically giving you a room and food for free) or a guard/troop allowance (giving you so much money to hire guards and other personnel). You can also give your players access to some services, such as a limited amount of magic casting at a temple that they helped.


Doing something super impressive will probably leave a lasting impact. Even if they might not have tangible benefits like a money reward, bards may choose to immortalize the character(s) in song and they might get other benefits such as a free room. This is different than the above allowance since the allowance can be spent anywhere. In this case, these are benefits given to the character in appreciation of what they did and will greatly vary on a person to person basis (in some cases, it may even be hostility). It could very naturally open up opportunities that the players did not previously have. Maybe now the king will meet with the players. You might also choose to tie the characters into future games you play. I've never seen a player not liking seeing a statue of their previous character in a campaign set years in the future.


Ever have players come back from an alien realm having lost their sense of fear for creatures? Or have your players spend 5 years in a foreign land and learn the language through exposure? Or maybe they were imbued with a special magic as a result of a freak accident or perhaps the blessing of a mysterious being? Some of the rewards players gain can directly improve the capabilities of the characters in combat and other skills. I'd recommend doing it sparingly unless campaign reasons give a good reason for it (all your players are the avatars of gods on earth and their avatars have been steadily getting stronger, for example) but it's another tool to reward players over the course of the campaign.


Knowing someone who knows someone can be an extremely powerful thing. Even without something more tangible, being able to get the ear of the next in line to the throne presents new options to the player and also allows for all kinds of new stories to be created by the Dungeon Master. I will say that it's important that they are a real option over the course of the game. Making them only an option when you as the Dungeon Master want them to tends to feel cheap. Contacts are already part of the game and as the players level they tend to expand their sphere of influence. Contacts are often combined with some of the other rewards mentioned earlier, such as favours and fame.

Story Progress

Not everything needs to reward players. I've had quite a few players enjoy taking an action that they knew would not reward them. However, it was what their players would do and lead the story forward. Doing the right thing in a situation can be its own reward, especially when it leads to more story. This is especially true for players that play for the role-playing aspect.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Dungeon Master: Skill Challenges Revisited

One of the things heavily pushed in 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons was the idea of skill challenges. Even something like navigating a town and finding the bad guy turned into a skill challenge. When 5th edition was released, quite a few of the people I knew playing 4th edition switched over. When they did, however, a few of them took the idea of skill challenges with them. Due to this exposure, and coming across one recently when looking for free stuff to review on the Dungeon Masters Guild, I decided to talk about it a little bit. In particular I'll try to focus on what I felt worked, what elements are useful and what I felt didn't work.

What Is a Skill Challenge?

Put simply, a skill challenge was a method of determining if the players succeeded in a task by using multiple checks to achieve successes or failures. If enough failures were achieved, the players failed and if enough successes were achieved, they would succeed. They'd often allow different skills to be used and were heavily used in 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons adventures. 


My issue with them in 4th edition was that I felt they were often overused. We get to a similar place as a result of regular play without the idea of a skill challenge. If a player wants to climb a wall and then try to jump from on top of the wall to grab a ledge, it can be easily handled by 2 different checks. Depending on which fails, the results could be different (misses the jump and landing back on the top of the wall, falling, or failing to climb at all). All of this is done without the introduction of a new mechanic.

What's Good?

One particular area that I liked skill challenges was for combat encounters. Having a short skill challenge (3 successes before 3 failures is about the longest I would try) where a player can use their skills to get a significant benefit often worked very well. Often it would force the rest of the party to protect the wizard while they tried to weaken a seal to let them advance, to prevent the summoning of an enemy later (such as a trap activation as they get closer to their objective), or breaking the magical and non-magical layers of protection of a sarcophagus. This forces another choice on the players: do we use our actions to try and do these checks or do we fight? If you have an Eldritch Knight with the arcana skill, does he keep the enemies off the wizard's back and let him concentrate, or do they both try to work on the portal to seal it, leaving the cleric and rogue to protect them? If something is complicated, it makes sense that it might take longer than one round to do. 

Be Careful with Dispel Magic

What I've sometimes seen is a skill challenge like thing for something that dispel magic could do anyway. In these cases, I typically found a few different solutions. First, having a way to solve a problem without burning spell slots is not a bad thing so I don't mind it (at earlier levels they might not even have the spell or already used the slots). In others, such as trying to close a portal ripped into existence by a powerful being, you might decide that a skill challenge like thing on top of the slot is called for (you might want to provide a bonus based on the spell slot used though so it doesn't feel like they wasted a 9th level slot). There may also be some magic or some problem (old tomb defense, for example) that can't be so easily dispelled. Maybe it's not arcane but innate to the area, or after being dispelled it quickly reforms because the cause is not destroyed (the magic trap is just temporarily deactivated).

Let's Be More General

The thing about skill challenges is that they are really just a sequence of skill checks. I've always felt that treating them as such is far more effective and versatile. Instead of “failing” after 3 unsuccessful skill checks, you give 1d10 necrotic damage each time they fail. When they successfully make 3 skill checks, they succeed. Additionally, failing or succeeding any check that is part of a skill check can lead to other outcomes. Maybe because of how well the wizard was doing, the next check is made easier. Maybe since they failed, 1d4 skeletons come back to life and attack the party (they all drop dead after 3 checks, failures or not).

This more general version comes down to this: it takes multiple skill checks to succeed at something. Failing/succeeding a certain number of times might have a bad outcome, and so failing/succeeding one time might have a bad/good outcome. When I think about it, it makes sense that some things take more than one skill and/or more than one success to accomplish. Thinking about what makes sense in context will lead to skill checks that feel much more natural. It's just sometimes they might resemble what was called a skill challenge in 4th edition. However, there is far more you can play around with that wasn't included in the description of a skill challenge. I don't think we should miss out on those situations just because our tool didn't consider them. 

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Devil's Rest Review

A look at Devil's Rest, a small adventure side trek available on the Dungeon Masters Guild. 

  • Solid and complete package
  • Good source of inspiration for a mini-quest
  • Though references material specific to Hand of the Wychlaran, it can easily be converted
  • Map included for the combat encounter
  • Free!

Could Go Either Way
  • Only 4 pages in length (on one it's hand short, on another that makes it a quick read and easy to run)

  • A similar encounter can be thought up by a Dungeon Master without too much difficulty (it's more of a time saver than something truly innovative)


There are a lot of very nice things about pre-written encounters/adventures. They tend to be playtested. They are a great source of inspiration (I enjoy seeing what other Dungeon Masters have done). They also just might have something that can be “reused”. Devil's Rest is one that I came across recently and felt was worth mentioning. It's short and simple but overall a nice package.

The Adventure

The adventure itself is quite simple and straight forward. However, it presents an interesting encounter that has multiple ways of being solved (including inaction). It can be used in place of a random encounter. It can also be used as a hint of things to come. Just because something is simple doesn't mean it can't be fun (it really can be, especially compared to a typical random encounter), and the fact that everything is included in this ready to go package is greatly appreciated. The idea of forcing players to try to keep something evil locked up is easy to come up with. However, having all of the details and specifics ready to go makes it far easier for new Dungeon Masters and less time consuming for experienced ones (we can modify it as we see fit and benefit from the time saved). 

The actual sealing part takes the form of a Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition like skill challenge. This means that a fluke won't doom the party. The way it's presented and used here is fine, and people who missed Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition might see something they can use. I'll be talking about skill challenges a bit more in a later post. 

It isn't the most innovative or unique encounter you'll ever read and with a bit of time you can come up with something similar. However, it's a nice overall package and while not being unique, it's the kind of encounter that comes up fairly often. A great deal of how much you like this one will come from your appreciation for the package and not expecting something you've never seen before. It's also not very long but can be a good starting point for something more. If you are new to being a Dungeon Master, it will be a good thing to see at the very least.


MAP. It's sized for miniatures too. It's finally happened. All this time complaining has led to someone listening. Alright, there's no way that's the reason. However, if everyone included maps like this with their encounters and adventures, the world would be a better place. Thank you so much. A smaller map detailing the locations of enemies in a D&D 4th edition style is also included as well as a drawing of the baddie. For something free, this is really nice. The map itself is generally well done and I could see myself reusing it. It probably won't be as exciting for people who already have a fair amount of wilderness tiles and maps.


I would grab this thing for the map alone. It's a rather short file and I'm sure you capable Dungeon Masters out there can think of something similar. However, new and old Dungeon Masters looking for an encounter can add this encounter to their game quite easily. The encounter is a complete package as well, requiring only a little bit of converting to fit into the desired setting (probably a few minutes at most). Even though I'm not new to this kind of thing, I appreciate when the details of an encounter are filled out like this. That way I can keep it to spring later. It includes everything needed so even if I forget, it's all here. It's also a good way to check out what the author is like before buying one of their full adventures.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Dungeon Master: Know Your World


By this point in my tabletop career, I've had the pleasure of running many a module and many a campaign (as relative as that measure is). I've also had the opportunity to take part as a player. As a result, I've come to see certain things that give people issues when running published adventures. The one I want to cover today is the issue of not knowing the world the adventure takes place in. I also want to go over what knowing it well buys. 

Adventures Are Incomplete

Adventures by their nature cannot cover everything. They tend to focus on the most obvious options and the way the author originally envisioned. Players can and if you run enough adventures eventually will run off the rails. However, as a Dungeon Master you don't really want it to feel like the adventure went off the rails. You want it to feel like one big whole. If there is a big difference between the two parts there is going to be a disconnected, which is something you probably want to avoid (in the right cases it might be exactly what you want).

Adventures typically give you a few of the solutions that the author thought of. One of your players might think of a clever (or not so clever) alternative to the situation. In these cases it's even more important to try to be consistent with the rest of the adventure. It's fine if a brief rest has a different feeling than the long journey to the destination. However, it probably won't be fine if a slightly different route than was intended contradicts the themes of the adventure.


The overall idea is simple. If you have a good feeling for the world you are in, you can better improvise and make your additions feel natural. For this goal there are some things that I think are more useful than others. Knowing the themes an adventure is chasing after is important. It is hard to build up a theme and atmosphere but easy to accidentally tear it down. Being aware of them is important. However, it can be quite nuanced and specific. A setting can be dark, but that may not give enough credit to the themes. Themes such as “death comes suddenly”, “power corrupts”, “anything can be bought for the right price”, “it takes a monster to kill a monster”, “for there to be light there must be darkness”, and “anything can be forgotten” can all contribute to a dark setting. However, the specific themes that are being addressed will contribute to the overall feeling. Switching themes and switching back can be a bit jarring.

Another thing to know and understand is the characters. You can of course modify characters to your liking, but understanding them beforehand helps to better make such changes. More often, if you understand your characters you can better and more believably react to your players. Having characters acting out of character is usually more jarring than going off theme in my experience.

Knowing the general area and environment is also important for consistency. The choices you make in populating the environment as well as the locations contained within influence the themes but also build up the environment. You usually want to have some level of consistency in an environment. How that consistency looks may differ (the trees, the foliage, the general darkness, language spoken, etc.). At the very least, feeling comfortable in the environment and knowing what it generally looks like makes improvisation and exploration far easier.

More Important for Longer Adventures

I typically find this kind of knowledge is more important when running larger works. The currently published 250+ page adventures by Wizards of the Coast are examples of large works where the above considerations are important. You want the parts of the campaign to fit together and after you make the improvisation in the current session, you have more to go. However, if the adventure you are running is a one-shot you can easily morph it into anything you want and fit it in anywhere.

When Making Your Own Setting

When you make your own setting, you typically know all of these things already. You generally know your characters and your location. For this reason, I find it much easier to improvise when it is my setting or at the very least my adventure. I know the themes I'm shooting for and the characters. I also know what kind of location I want. Translating someone else's adventure is harder because you don't have that same knowledge or understanding. Instead, you try to gain it as best you can from what you read. Only so many words can fit into a book. Eventually you'll reach a point where you won't understand it any better and you'll just need to give things a shot. When it's my own setting, I don't really experience this problem. The only main problem left is accidentally writing myself into a corner or making something that my players just don't get (it's my job as the Dungeon Master to communicate the adventure to my players).

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Dungeon Master: Rolling Player Health

Rolling player health is a classic feature of Dungeons & Dragons and 5th edition has it included in the rules (unlike 4th edition). However, rolling health can result in problems that an inexperienced Dungeon Master may have difficulty handling. Due to pure luck the party's cleric could end up being better at taking damage than the fighter.

Is It a Problem?

What's wrong with having a fighter that's hard to hit thanks to their armour but isn't very tough? It's as valid a character as any other! If you are rolling health, your players should go into it knowing that this kind of thing is possible and be able to roll with it. Some might not like the idea of playing a flimsy fighter. They became a fighter because they wanted to be tough. From the Dungeon Master's perspective, it's potentially an issue. Statistically, the party should be roughly fine in the long term. However, especially in early levels, lucky or unlucky rolls can have a very big influence on the total amount of health a character has. In these cases, challenge ratings and experience tables can become completely inaccurate (though how accurate they were in the first place is debatable).

Too Little Health

The party may need to play smarter and use more healing potions and other things. That's perfectly fine. You may also want to send a little less stuff at the party in order not to overwhelm them. This is especially true if you've run something before for a more average party and it was difficult. However, I've seen parties play smart and get by. Through their rests, the party has a measure of control over their hit points. It may not obviously help them in a particular combat situation, but through their rests the party can control how much hit points they go with into a combat situation. As a result, the combat encounter itself may not need to be changed but the party will need to adjust their tactics and logistics to account for their weakness.

Too Much Health

This right here is why I decided to write all of this in the first place. I had a ranger that rolled an 8 and a 9 when leveling up to level 2 and 3. The result was that they were very tough early in the game. To keep the tension, the possibility of death needs to be constant. However, the other characters didn't roll as well, excluding the fighter. As a result, adjusting the difficulty of encounters before hand wasn't very easy. Anything I did to make it harder for the ranger would also punish everyone else, who had roughly the expected hit points. However, in practice it worked well. If I wanted to challenge the party, I could be more confident putting them into deadly situations. Dice can be fickle and the health turned out to be not too much of a problem in play. Lucky damage rolls helped even things out. It also let me more confidently employ tricky tactics against the party and know that they had a bit of a buffer. If you want to put your characters into more dangerous situations than normal but still level them as normal, letting them max out or almost max out their health is an option. The result is that players feel harder to take down and as such more can be thrown their way. You will want to do so, however, or things just become too easy.

Issues with Adjusting

If we are just going to adjust things anyway, there's an argument that the rolling for health doesn't matter anymore. I'm not sure I agree, since the distribution of hit points in the party still matters. Also, taking on a group, even if it's just 2 more enemies, feels more impressive for the players generally. Even if it's not by as much as before, characters will still get better when they level up so having the characters feel like they haven't grown isn't that much of a concern. I do have to note that it can change how powerful a particular level up feels to a player. Whether you want to adjust or treat them as normal, it'll still probably work (as statistics says that getting all 9s and 10s for a fighter is very unlikely).

How Badly Skewed Are We?

How badly skewed and for how long will it affect things? If it's a 10 rolled on a d10 at level 2, it's not so bad by the time they reach level 20. However, if it's 9s and 10s all the way up to level 20, the difference becomes massive. At level 2, that good roll provides similar issues as a string of great rolls from level 2 to level 20.  At a certain point you need to do something to continue threatening these kinds of characters, whether through effects that ignore health or through more things to fight. How this is done is best left up to a case by case basis but it's something worth mentioning at the least.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Adversaries & Allies Review

A look and review of the Adversaries & Allies package of NPCs for Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. 
  • Nice assortment of pre-created stats for Dungeon Masters to use for characters
  • Consistent since it sticks quite close player creation rules
  • 38 pages long
  • Free (well, pay what you want)!

  • Challenge ratings are often a bit off in my opinion
  • Nothing exotic is included since it only contains player like characters


I'm always on the lookout for things that make my job as the Dungeon master easier. As such, if I'm quickly drawn to new monsters I can unleash on my players as well as new characters. Adversaries & Allies caught my eye for that reason. It was also free (well, pay what you want), which meant I couldn't resist grabbing it.

What's Inside

It's a really nice collection in general. It's 38 pages of stat block after stat block. It's free (well, pay what you want) so I wasn't expecting any art, and that's just what I got. Although a Dungeon Master could make many of these stat blocks themselves by consulting the rules and making appropriately leveled characters (same rules players use to make theirs), having them already done is a nice time save. I find that many of the characters in a campaign tend to be more normal anyway and more like the players than an ancient evil lich. This makes the adversaries and allies provided quite useful. The author of this collection doesn't always adhere strictly to the player rules, adding further variety than if you just strictly used them. You still can do so but mixing the two together could make things more interesting as well as giving the Dungeon Master options. For me, it's also nice since some of the ones I created are a couple of levels off in either direction. Already made stat blocks like this also serve as an easy way to create more variations by trimming back levels (apply creation rules in reverse) and spell lists (spell list construction often takes me longer than any other part). The stat blocks also cover a nice variety of roles.

There are also some stat blocks, like the expert, that are made without using the player creation rules. Though these are probably the minority, they are extremely useful and far less likely to be come up independently. I personally like seeing these kinds of creatures and characters that Dungeon Masters come up with. They are also a great to use as is, as inspiration, or just to see how another Dungeon Master's mind ticks.


The main issue I have with this collection is the challenge ratings. As an example, let's look at the cleric. It's a challenge rating 2 while being a level 8 spellcaster, while the priest in the basic rules (also all other rules) is a level 5 spellcaster while also being a challenge rating 2. This also means that the experience for the combat encounter is not what it should be. Some of them I think are perfectly reasonable. Others, I think are might be slightly off but not by much (or might be made more powerful with a slight tweak to their spell list). In general I think they are solid. I also don't think challenge rating is a great representation of challenge, but it represents a starting point and translates to the amount of experience given. Experience is often also used to construct encounter according to the tables in the rules. If you are a new Dungeon Master, be aware that some of the stat blocks may not have the right amount of experience. Be ready to change the challenge rating and award experience accordingly. It's these kinds of things that tables like in Unearthed Arcana could help prevent. Since they are based around normal characters, some people may also find them a bit boring (in this case you can add a twist) and lacking in the exotic.

Note to New Dungeon Masters: Remember that like any other stat block, you are free to modify and not use them however you see fit. If you want to use the noble stats instead of ruler (provided in these rules) for a king, go ahead and do so. Not every ruler needs to be as tough as the stats provided here. Not all rulers need to be as weak as the noble. Some might be better with some form of mage stats.


I'd say grab the free PDF and use it as a resource (if you like it, throw some money at the author). It's really a nice collection that can easily be consulted along with the current Monster Manual. Just be aware that some of the challenge ratings are a bit off so be careful and adjust as you see fit. It's not consistent throughout so it needs to be looked at on a case by case basis (we might disagree on what a good challenge rating is anyway and challenge ratings are often not useful anyway).

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Map Set Review: The Keeper of Realms

A review of the Black Scroll Games map The Keeper of Realms.

  • Well draw and coloured maps
  • Isometric visual aid images included
  • Often used location (wizard's library is a popular location)
  • Example story with visual aids and riddle included
  • A PDF document broken up for printing as well as .jpg files are provided
  • 1 inch grid size
  • Free after signing up for the newsletter (for at least a year)

Could Go Either Way
  • The adventure idea included is system neutral (more accessible but more work)

  • The 3D style makes it difficult to combine with non-3D style sets unless they are used in their own separate sections (you need to commit to the 3D art style for at least some sections of your dungeon). You can still do so, but there will be an aesthetic break. 


In keeping in the tradition of me looking for free maps wherever I can find them, I've recently stumbled upon Black Scroll Games and their maps. In particular, The Keeper of Realms set is currently provided for free when you sign up for their newsletter (when I asked, I was told it would be this way for at least a year).

The Map

There are two main maps included, though that isn't really telling the whole story. The PDF files make use of layers so that there are options included for things such as background colour and grid style (classic square grids or rounded grids, since the library itself is circular). The main map is the large, 9 page library. Within the centre of the library, after solving the included puzzle, there is a secret chamber that is also provided. This secret chamber is made further more useful by providing an alternate empty version. It's missing the details such as tables, but it means it is much easier to customize for your own personal games. The ability to remove the details easily in the lower chamber section allows the placement of 3D props without conflicting with already present details. The story included with the map has a part where a spiral staircase to the lower chamber is revealed. In the set a tile with this opening is provided allowing you to visually show the event to players by placing this tile over the previous one. I really liked this added detail. Sound like too much work for too little gain? It's in its own .pdf file. Just don't print it.

An optional adventure is presented along with a riddle and adventure aids. These aids are handouts that are meant to be given to the players (a riddle in a code/dead language, the code/dead language itself and a drawing) and isometric depictions of the areas. The riddle isn't too difficult but it's fine for its purpose (you typically don't want riddles your party can't ever figure out). 

Libraries are a common feature in tabletop role-playing games and when they are featured, they usually belong to wizards. As a result, this map is quite reusable. It is easy to rework into a homebrew though it is probably not enough for a complete adventure on its own. With a little bit of work to flesh out the process of finding the library, it can make for a decent one-shot. It is very easy to convert it to something else entirely as well. If your players need to find some kind of scroll, chances are you can recycle at least part of what is found here.


It looks really nice. The map presented is detailed and has a perspective that shows off the details and height of the library in a way that isn't otherwise possible in a flat map. In many other maps you only see the top edge of the wall. In these maps, you get to see the angled face of the wall as well. As a map on its own, it looks really nice. However, this perspective choice makes it naturally harder to combine with other sets that don't go for this 3D approach because of the presence of the two different styles. In such cases, you can still use what is found here to create a room. When the 3D tiles are placed together with 3D tiles the issue is avoided. I also find it far less jarring to have flat style tiles lead to a 3D style room than a mixture of both styles in the same section. I've run adventures like that and my players didn't mind but some people might prefer to stick to either all 3D style art of to all flat style art. All of this isn't a problem if mixing art styles together doesn't bother you. In some similar maps I've been concerned that 3D props don't work well. This is because they don't completely cover up the art (for example, in the case of the book shelf). In this case, part of the library is raised. This means that if you have 3D prop miniature bookshelves and place them on the map, they will now be higher than the raised part of the library. For this reason, I'd suggest running the library itself without props. Without them, thanks to the 3D art style, it looks almost as if you had recreated the entire thing using 3D terrain and props. However, it's easier to set up than tiles and 3D props. If you really like going for full 3D, you'd need to build the raised section (this would require you to carefully cut out the raised section).

The isometric aids are very nice looking and the lighting in particular is very nice. They aren't an essentially but they are a really nice addition to the package. It also means that even if prefer theatre of mind play, you can still find something of use from this package.


It's a very nice map. The location itself, a wizard's library, is very easily reusable and comes up often in play. The library map in particular has a good sense of height. The visual aids give a nice alternate view of the area and allow for use even in theatre of mind play. A possible adventure idea and puzzle are provided with the adventure. For the puzzle and adventure idea, visual aids are also presented in order to enhance the experience. These take the form of a dead language/code, a riddle written in the dead language/code, and a drawing. As a map it is very nice and all of the extras, from visual aids to adventure elements, are just icing on the cake. The lower chamber part also allows you to remove details, further enhancing its reuse. It has just about everything you could want from a map. I hope I see more packages in the future that have so many elements for Dungeon Masters. The adventure isn't the most developed but it is system neutral. The 3D art style works best with maps and tiles that also have a 3D art style. It can still, however, be used to make art style consistent rooms even if you use mostly 2D style tiles. Doing so is less jarring but some might prefer a consistent 2D or 3D art style. For now it's also free. If you think you'd like it based on what I've said, go ahead and check it out. I've always liked the no risk and informative approach of samples and demos.  

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Unearthed Arcana: Encounter Building Response


Unearthed Arcana has a new article that covers guidelines for creating combat encounters. I've tried to create a table that maps level to challenge rating one to one (essentially translating level to challenge rating and vice versa) based on this article. Up until now we've mainly had experience and challenge rating to go on. Seeing this, I wanted to see what I could pull out and possibly organize into a new form as well as note anything else of interest I noticed.

Resulting Chart

The below chart uses the information in the multiple monster table provided in the Unearthed Arcana article. When two challenge ratings were given for a level, I took the highest. The result is a relative translation between level and challenge rating. If you like to use the player creation rules as a starting point for baddies, you might find this helpful.

Level Challenge Rating
1 1/4
2 1/2
3 1/2
4 1
5 2
6 2
7 3
8 3
9 4
10 4
11 4
12 5
13 6
14 6
15 7
16 7
17 8
18 8
19 9
20 10

What We Get

It doesn't look like my resulting chart follows a pattern. It's probably best that if you just consult the charts and not memorize them. I'm happy to finally see the math behind challenge ratings and hopefully once it gets finalized it'll help a better level of consistency on Dungeon Masters Guild. The challenge rating for different group sizes was also a nice touch. I wish the table went to at least 3 players groups for solo monsters. You would think that you could use the tables to figure it out yourself, but it doesn't line up. The math for the multiple monsters table is different than the solo monsters table. Given the modifiers used in the Dungeon Master's Guide for larger groups of enemies (the difficulty of an encounter was the total experience points multiplied by a constant determined by the number of enemies), it's not too much of a surprise. Trying to work backwards by guessing would be a pain though and not guaranteed to yield a result. It makes me wonder if the table was made mostly through eyeballing things or whether there is some kind of hidden math. If it's hidden math, I'd like to see it.

The solo monster table is quite interesting to see. You would think that challenge rating should translate to something meaningful, like being a nice challenge for a party of 4 for that level. At fifth level, that pattern is quickly abandoned in the table. It reinforces that challenge ratings are odd. To make things worse, it specifically states that the table is for challenge a party by using a single legendary creature.

The table for dealing with multiple monsters in an encounter may be more useful. I'm hoping to see if I can successfully trim back an encounter to fewer characters by using it. Based on the text so far, it should use the same math as the other guidelines. However, the difference in the way it is presented means it will be easier to use for certain things.

I like the sections about monster personality and monster relationships. Too often I've seen the encounters where creatures are just buckets of hit points that need to be reduced to zero before advancing. It honestly seems to be stuff that should have been included in the Dungeon Master's Guide.

Is It Alternate?

Reading over these guidelines, it makes me wonder if it is indeed an alternate system or instead another system of checks we can use. If you know what creature you want to throw at your party or need a single legendary creature, it should make it easier to design the encounter. Using the second table, you can also choose monsters to challenge a single character and then multiply it by the number of characters, if you have a party of equal level. I think I might give that approach a try and see how it works. In the previous guidelines, however, the number of creatures used against the party influence the modifier. In the new method, the total number of creatures doesn't seem to be used. My concern at the moment is that these new guidelines will diverge from the old ones at times.  

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Dungeon Master: Known Spells

The number of known spells affects the strength of a spellcaster. However, outside the wizard, most classes can't learn more spells outside of their leveling. The wizard, however, can learn many new spells (through finding spell books and spell scrolls) and become a utility powerhouse due to their wide range of options. I'll try to talk about ways to bridge the gap for other classes as well as some problem that may result.

Possible Problems

Wizards are limited in the number of spells they can prepare. This means that even though they have many options, they have to make a choice. Other classes, however, always bring everything they know to the table. This means that if you decide to give every arcane spell possible to a sorcerer, they will not be limited by the preparation rules of a wizard and become even more well-rounded. If all you have in your campaign is a sorcerer, it may not be too much of a problem since the party wizard won't feel overshadowed. Otherwise, if done, it needs to be limited and done carefully to prevent the situation I mentioned.

Learn by Watching

You can decide that you want your sorcerers to learn new spells from watching others cast the spells. Clearly this is harder and more time consuming than passing around and mass producing books. It also, from a gameplay perspective, adds another reason for your sorcerer to pay attention. It also feels awesome to learn a new spell and pull it out to save everyone in the middle of combat (person experience talking). You need to trust your player, however, since keeping track of this in combat is very difficult. Whenever I've seen Dungeon Masters use a system like this, they would trust the player and not keep track themselves.

More Spells Are Needed

Just giving spells to the players that are important for riddles or other reasons is another solution to the problem. There are also some spells that are mathematically awesome that people always gravitate towards. If you give these for free and let them take other ones, the result is a character that can do cool things outside of combat as well as within it. However, again, some spells can make it easy for magic characters to completely overshadow the rest of the party. As a result, serious care should to be taken or other benefits should to be given to the non-magic characters in order to offset the result.

Spell scrolls can also be made available to these characters. It's an easy way to give access to tons of spells that the players may not otherwise have access to. Copying the spells from the spell scrolls is also not a problem for the non-wizard magic classes I was talking about so they are far less dangerous for a campaign in their hands.

Just Don't Give Many Spells to the Wizard

There is also a very easy solution to the problem from the start. If you don't give your wizard every spell under the sun, the entire problem goes away. A few spells here and there won't unbalance things too badly though.

Taking Away Spells

Spells like wish, which can be taken away from the player, can be a big problem for classes that cannot learn more spells as written. In these cases, you might choose to be merciful and let the player take a different high level spell to take its place. However, if your campaign features situations where spells or knowledge about spells is taken from players more often, beware that it will affect those other classes far more widely than the wizard (assuming the wizard has access to spell books and spell scrolls).  

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Rules Corner: Alternate Reaction

The rules, as written right now, only allow a single attack to be made as a readied action. At first, this really isn't much of a problem. However, as players become more powerful and get more and more abilities (including extra attacks), the “ready an action” option gets less and less useful. For that reason, I hope to provide an alternate system I've seen and personally used.

The New System

Using the “ready an action” action allows the player or creature to take their turn later in the round (for purposes of effects, only the initiative order turn is used). As a result, the option remains useful for the entire length of a campaign.

Problems and Solutions: Keep the Trigger?

The above, as written, doesn't keep the trigger. It allows the player to use their turn as normal. This can cause a wide range of problems, include from stealth attacks. For these cases, I have a few solutions that could work.

First, players attacked successfully from stealth cannot react. This goes for spellcasters too. This is to prevent using the reactions to always attack right before a stealthed creature attacks.

Secondly, the trigger can be kept as normal. The only different is that more conditions and actions can be added (“I pull the lever when someone steps on the trapdoor” can change into “I pull the lever when someone steps on the trapdoor and move back to the rest of the party after doing so”). This is my preferred solution since it keeps it simpler and also makes extra-attack oriented classes keep up with wizards. It does, however, force wizards to keep concentrations to attack and extra-attack oriented characters not too (I deem this to be not too much of a big deal given the often area attack nature of spells allows them to do more damage overall).

Problems and Solutions: Concentration

There are a couple of problems that may be quickly apparent. The first comes for spellcasters. Previously, they had to ready a spell and maintain concentration. The above may let them to do the same thing without concentration. This makes the rule useless except for effects that require concentration to maintain.

If this is fine, you can ignore this section and go as is. However, you can also decide that spellcasters still need to maintain concentration to cast their spells but attacks do not. One will give a distinct disadvantage to spellcasters, but spells are quite powerful already so it might be seen as fine.

Problems and Solutions: Multiple People Delaying Actions

If two people are delaying their actions and then they both want to react, there is a problem with who goes first. In these cases, I say that the person who waited the longest acts first. This is quite straight forward I think, though feel free to point out any issues if you see them.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Storm King's Thunder Top 3 Reuse

With the release of Storm King's Thunder, we got a new adventure but also a new resource to shamelessly steal from for our homebrew. I did it before with Curse of Strahd but I think that going forward I'll continue to do this with every new adventure. With that in mind, here are 3 things that can be easily and effectively repurposed.

Chapter 1

The free first chapter of the adventure, found here, provides an introduction to the storyline. It also gives a series of encounters inside a city. As it is, it can be run as a goblin attack on a city followed by an orc attack (completely removing giants from the equation). The one part that's left hard to explain in this case is the rocks (you can change the description of character deaths from being crushed by rocks to being shot with arrows). You can also easily change the goblins to guards of an opposing army.

The Morkoth

The encounter in general is quite nice in my opinion. Part of the reason is that it occurs on a ship. As it is you can very easily replace King Hekaton with another similar creature (dragon comes to mind) and still keep the encounter largely intact. The betrayal of the crew is a nice touch and easily kept when reusing. You can also choose to replace King Hekaton with a special chest containing a magic item needed for your quest. This chest should have magic properties similar to the chains that bind King Hekaton.

The Savage Frontier

The adventure contains a nice long description of the area, what creatures and characters live within it, as well as some interesting plot hooks. The Wight Brothers are a personal favourite. It's a short little description and location but there is enough there to give me inspiration for a nice wight themed adventure. The area itself, up in the cold north, can be easily used as the backdrop for your own themed adventure. Want to do an evil undead army attacking? It still works. Want to do a Tyranny of Dragons style storyline based in the north? Between the location and the dragons, you got it. It's a bit harder to point to one thing that can be reused in this case since we are talking about a large area and quite a few different characters. However, that vastness and potential is what makes it valuable when plotting a campaign. The adventure also adds some details to the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide, adding to the Forgotten Realms and can be used to add to previously published adventures.


Storm King's Thunder is heavily based around giants. Removing giants from encounters and sections of the adventure becomes quite difficult as a result. However, it will be much easier to adapt and require far less work if giants feature prominently in your campaign.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Dungeons & Dragons: Storm King's Thunder Review

Review copy and images courtesy of Wizards of the Coast. 

  • Lots of full colour art (as we have come to expect of this edition)
  • Variety in locations and types of encounters
  • Chapter 1 is released for free on the Dungeon Masters Guild at
  • Plenty of characters to role-play as a Dungeon Master
  • Some very nice and interesting encounters
  • Layout of adventure is extremely easy to follow thanks to an adventure outline and an alphabetically ordered list of characters
  • 256 pages long
  • Many of the characters in the adventure have ideals, flaws and bonds presented

Could Go Either Way:
  • No new player options (since I run a lot of homebrew games, I prefer to make new player options myself)
  • It's not as atmospheric as Rage of Demons or Curse of Strahd.
  • Adventure is open-ended and requires serious Dungeon Master preparation (for those who like the control, it's a massive pro)
  • By design it appears that roughly 1/5th of the adventure by page count (50-60 pages) can be bypassed as a result of the branching structure of the adventure (this is offset by having no player options, meaning there is simply more adventure than Princes of the Apocalypse). The book, removing the introduction and appendices, is 212 pages long (removing the 50-60 pages leaves us with roughly 150 pages of adventure). 55 more pages are taken up by describing the setting location.
  • Milestone leveling is heavily emphasized (I don't think the XP values will work well)
  • Giants (if you think giants are meh enemies, you won't like it)
  • The story ending seems ... odd ... possibly (look in the adventure itself section for details)
  • You'll need the Monster Manual and Dungeon Master's Guide to run the adventure (no more supplement PDFs)
  • The bindings might be off (my copy is pretty good but it isn't as good as my copy of Curse of Strahd)
  • No PDF version*
  • No included grids*

* Denotes nitpicking. I say this every time.

Storm King's Thunder cover
The cover of Storm King's Thunder.


On September 6th, 2016, a brand new adventure called Storm King's Thunder was released by Wizards of the Coast. This time the focus is on giants, with a splash of dragons and politics. I'm a bit late with my review again, but hopefully someone finds it useful. As of writing this, I've read the book cover to cover, run the first chapter (available for free here) and started on chapter 2.

I think there is fun to be had in Storm King's Thunder and that there is some good art (as we've come to expect), though as always there is some I don't care for much. The adventure has some very interesting encounters in my opinion. However, the adventure doesn't have the same urgency as some of the others already released. It also isn't as atmospheric as the last couple of adventures that were released. The adventure also has a lot of material that may not be used at all due to the flow of the adventures and the choices presented. The overall flow, however, is very well presented. I'd like to see similar flow diagrams and alphabetically ordered lists of characters in adventures going forward (if you can't fit it into the book, shove it on the website).

The Adventure

New Player Options

There is not much here. There are some new magic items. That's it. There are no new backgrounds, no new spells, and there are no class options. It may be the smallest amount in an adventure to date. I prefer it this way so it didn't bother me. I prefer to make my own player options. That way, I vet it all and clearly approve of the options. It also lets me make sure it works well with what I'm trying to bring to life. If you want more options like some of the other adventures had, you'll be disappointed.

New Monsters

We Dungeon Masters get a few more monsters. We also get some new options for giants to make them a little more interesting to fight and a little more varied. In many places, existing stat blocks are modified instead of creating new creatures. I like this generally, but I think we'll need a collection for this kind of thing eventually (otherwise you'll need to consult a lot of adventure books for monsters or just remaking existing monsters which results in inconsistency).

What You Need to Play

The Monster Manual, Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide are referenced at the start of the adventure. If you wanted to use the basic rules and/or the SRD, you are out of luck. Tables from the Dungeon Master's Guide are often used in order to make magic items random in the adventure. These tables aren't present in the adventure or in the SRD, so you'd need to make things up yourself. Without having seen the tables and generally knowing what's on them, you run the risk of giving items too powerful or too weak. There are multiple monsters that are not in either source as well (the number is reduced if you use the Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Princes of the Apocalypse supplements). I counted as I went through. There are 16 creatures missing if you don't use the supplements and 8 if you do. You might be able to get away with house ruling if you are a D&D veteran (not knowing what the creature is suppose to be puts you at a disadvantage) but otherwise you'll run into a few problematic encounters.

Storm King's Thunder Northlander longship art
Art example of a Northlander longship from Storm King's Thunder. It's one of my favourites.

The Adventure Itself

The first chapter of the adventure is available for free on the DMs Guild. However, it's the kind of chapter that was previously put into the appendix section (like Death House in Curse of Strahd) of the adventure and is meant to get players to the proper level for the real meat of the adventure. In this case, the level they are trying to get the players to is level 5 (so that they can stand a chance against the giants). The real cool parts of the adventure are how all the different groups in Nightsone (globins, orcs, Zhentarim and elves) interact with the players and the possibility of forming uneasy temporary alliances. The presence of the settlement walls also allow for gameplay reminiscent of a siege. The settlement map is also nice and very reusable. If you want to run your own campaign and don't have many maps, it makes for a very nice generic settlement. It really is heavily based around milestone leveling though. The jump to 4th and 5th level in particular don't work if XP is used because there just isn't enough there from combat alone. You can add story reward XP to make up the difference but in that case you are just doing milestone leveling in a more roundabout way.

The organization of the adventure is extremely clear thanks to the alphabetically ordered list of characters called the “Dramatis Personae” and the high level diagram that shows how the chapters fit together in the scope of the adventure. Details on when the characters should gain levels is also in one easy to reference place at the end of the adventure. It continues the use of bold to make creatures stand out on the page (to make stats easy to look up) and provides references to the appendix when it's a new creature. The wandering monster tables are also nicely done and often cover more than one area at once by using multiple columns. As a result, all of the wandering monsters are in one place. Locations also have a roster of all the monsters in an area as well as their actions if some conditions take place (usually it has to do with the creatures being put on alert). All of this together makes it easy to reference particular characters, know the general flow of the story, and know which monsters are needed for an encounter.

The adventure has many difficult encounters. In the introduction, the adventure goes out of its way to say that many of the encounters are designed to be deadly. One of them in chapter 2 could have the characters, with some backup from the locals of the town they are in, face off against 3 frost giants and 2 winter wolves at level 5. There is a gate that makes things more even, but considering that a frost giant is a challenge rating 8 creature, it's a tough fight. There are many similar encounters in other parts of the adventure (this is one of the more extreme examples) which help test the players but also give them a way to win. Running is a valid option and planning is important to make sure too many giants aren't encountered at the same time.

The encounters are usually described well and give multiple avenues for players. However, we continue the stealth confusion where in some cases a group stealth check is used and in others an individual stealth check is used. There are some encounters where I felt a few more details could have been helpful in order to have a better idea of what the authors had in mind (the frost giant encounter I mentioned above) but overall they are done well. There is enough to quite easily fill in the gaps of what's missing. However, gaps will need to be filled and preparation time will be important. Even excluding that, many of the dungeons and encounters have many moving parts that the Dungeon Master should be aware of. There will also be quite a lot of overland travel and possible random encounters. These need special planning and handling from the Dungeon Master to be compelling.

The adventure provides a great variety of locations (castles in the sky, underwater partially flooded castles, regular castles, dwarven cities, frozen terrain, open sea exploration, etc.), characters and opportunities to role-play. The different types of giants make it easy to have all kinds of different situations, environments and enemies. It's a small detail, but I liked that there were many cases where names for the creatures were provided when it would have been easy to just say “a goblin”. It doesn't happen every time but I did appreciate when it was done. The airship was also a nice addition that gives the situation a very different feel and allows for different situations.

There is a section in this adventure giving suggestions on how to combine it with other published adventures (except Curse of Strahd). Doing so replaces the free chapter 1 section. To me it seems that the Lost Mine of Phandelver would work best because it ends at the correct level. It doesn't really introduce the players to the conflict and symptoms of what's going on the same as chapter 1 does. Instead, it ends up acting more like a sequel to Lost Mine of Phandelver. The other adventures have very serious problems that won't go away (such as demon lords) that just seem like bigger problems in comparison. Still, having some suggestions for how tie the adventures together is appreciated.

Up until now, it was common to have the adventure also function as a mini-supplement. In Out of the Abyss we got the underdark. In Curse of Strahd we got Barovia. This time around, we get the Savage Frontier in the north. A good 55 pages are used to describe the different places and characters within them. Some of them could be used to run their own one-shot adventures with ease (the 4 wight brothers are a personal favourite). Since the Sword Coast Advenurer's Guide was released earlier, there are some mentions to that book. Some of the locations overlap so extra details are provided in that book. I don't think you need that book and that you can do without it, but it is referenced.

The Story and Issues (SPOILERS)

The big picture story is that the caste system of the giants, the ordening, has been broken for some reason. Now, giants are vying to have their type of giant elevated to the top. At the same time King Hekaton, arguably most powerful of storm giants (the most powerful giant type as confirmed by the SRD), has gone missing.

The story has some issues, though it can still be run as it is quite easily. Some of the characters, in particular the daughters of the Storm Giant King, would have benefited by being expanded upon (luckily we Dungeon Masters can do that ourselves pretty well).

When we get King Hekaton back and wrap things up, the ordening isn't necessarily restored (though the adventure does suggest that is a potential ending). If it's not, can Hekaton rein in the badly behaving giants? If he can, then we don't need to come back to finish off all of the misbehaving giant lords. All he needs to do is say “here I am” and it's done. It also would seem odd to go and finish off the giant lords before going on to the conclusion from a story perspective. From a level perspective, it makes sense (the players would gain levels and have a better chance of surviving the climax of the adventure). I'd imagine that Hekaton would love some revenge right about then and wouldn't love the idea of waiting. As a result, a good portion portion of the book will probably be bypassed. This is offset by having no player options contributing to the length of the adventure. Naturally, unused sequences can be recycled in future campaigns and sessions.

Storm King's Thunder Morkoth
A piece of art of the Morkoth, a ship featured in Storm King's Thunder.

The Art and Book Build Quality

The art is what we are used to in this edition. There is still a variety in the art and art styles. As usual some are worse than others but in general it was well done and measures up to what we are used to. There are also 3 two page spreads in the book, one of which is a map. Most of the maps are drawn to look like a real aged and worn parchment map. They have a nice sketch style to them where they look accurate but not all of the details are presented. You also clearly get the impression that you are looking at a drawing, though a very good one. A few of them break this style, however, and I typically found these to be some of the weakest (about 3 of the maps I found to have far less of a wow factor because of this change in style). Unfortunately, this includes the final combat encounter. Within the real aged style there are 2 different aesthetics which tended to focus on two different locations in the adventure. Both worked for me but there is a clear aesthetic break on elements such as the text on the map. What they do have this time is a gallery of some of the art from the book on the website. You can find it here ( I'd say it's a good representation of what you would see in the book itself.

On the first page of my book I can see that the binding isn't as good as my copy of Curse of Strahd (my copy had a perfect binding). It's still almost perfect and nothing like my copy of Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide, but it's still worth keeping an eye on this when you are picking up your copy. It makes me think that there could be ones with much worse binding than my copy and some of the previous books did have problems. It's disappointing that this has happened in this edition and something to keep an eye out when buying D&D books going forward. The pages were very straight this time though. Again, I'd recommend looking for this when picking out your book.


The suggested price on the book is $49.95 in the USA and $63.95 in Canada, as we have come to expect. Online prices tend to be lower but you won't be able to look for the possible issues mentioned in the quality section.

What I felt was Missing

Again there is no supplementary PDF. I miss having every monster and magic item needed for the adventure in a quickly searchable format. Some of the newly added elements, such as the alphabetically ordered list of characters, would have been very convenient in PDF format.

Again, there are also no grids provided like what we had during the 4th edition time period. Some maps are sold by the artists who made them but it didn't look like there was an easy way to buy a single pack of all the maps featured in the adventure. For that reason, you are probably better off just using the maps in the book as reference and using tiles. It won't look nearly as good if you don't have enough environment pieces or miniatures, but it'll at least be consistent and cheaper.

Free Stuff

The first chapter ( is provided for free on the Dungeon Masters Guild. There isn't really anything else that I've seen so far.


I don't think I liked this adventure as much as Curse of Strahd or Out of the Abyss. This comes mainly from tonal, aesthetic and story choices in the adventure. I also greatly prefer horror themed enemies, undead and demons to giants. However, there are some really interesting encounters that I'd like to see in play. It's also not that Storm King's Thunder is a bad adventure (in fact, I think I'll have a fun time with it), but I can't say that it is my favourite. If I could buy just one of the published adventures, it wouldn't be this one. However, it isn't my least favourite either. The layout, however, is by far one of the clearest if not the clearest of the published adventures of this edition. I hope to see similar layouts going forward. There are also plenty of role-play opportunities. It will require some serious Dungeon Master preparation to flesh out characters (the three Storm Giant princesses in particular could be easily expanded on) and to tighten up the story, but there is a lot here that can be used for a fun campaign. It's definitely worth running. Take a look at the free chapter as well, which is similar to Death House from Curse of Strahd (it's meant to level characters up so they can face the main adventure), in the “Other Stuff” section below.

Other Stuff
  • Reading over this book, I noticed 11 typos and minor mistakes. None of them influenced the meaning but they were a little jarring to notice (on pages 13, 13, 23, 65, 88, 95, 125, 138, 202, 208, 241).
  • Creatures not included in the SRD are (PoA stands for Princes of the Apocalypse and HoDQ stands for Hoard of the Dragon Queen): yuan-ti (HoDQ), goblin boss, orc Eye of Gruumsh (PoA), orc war chief, orog (PoA), cambion, drow mage (PoA), drow elite warrior, shadow demon (PoA), young remorhaz, yeti, ankylosaurus, aarakocra (PoA), hobgoblin warlord, piercer (PoA), helmed horror (PoA).
  • This adventure is deadly, especially if players don't employ stealth. The adventure even notes that early
  • The adventure is open-ended and allows players to explore.