Sunday, 26 November 2017

DM & Players: Things That Just Make Sense

Every once in a while, there will be that moment a Dungeon Master realizes something that just makes sense for the situation despite what the rules say. It could even be a clever player who notices something that makes perfect sense in retrospect. It could be introducing two characters to each other. It could be trying to cover the bad guy in grease and catch them on fire. Regardless, these situations can come up in different ways and pose different challenges. They are also massively beneficial and are part of the magic that makes tabletop gaming such an amazing experience in my humble opinion.

Dungeon Master

In Combat Movement

There are many actions that can be taken in combat, many of which may not seem to make sense from an action economy standpoint. However, they can make sense from a character standpoint. The bad guy might make a dash towards the person holding what they want, and provoking opportunity attacks all the way there. You might also get the idea to fall back to a more advantageous position you didn't see before.

Big Bad Motivations

Often times the bad guys can be in a bit of a haze state, especially at the start of the campaign. We'll know what we want them to do, and what they are generally like but we won't know too much beyond that. Why are they doing what they are doing? What can make them stop? These questions are often overlooked. This is even more common for high ranked underlings. However, in the right moment we can find things that work surprisingly well. It can also be characteristics that we previously didn't realize. If an ally forces us to either hold our fire or launch a fireball anyway, not only is it a tactical decision but also a decision about the character of the person making the choice. Is using magic missile probably worse from the perspective of winning? Yes, but using it instead says something about the character. Aiming to wound or scare player characters away is a similar sort of thing.

Connected Plots

I've mentioned this before but dangling multiple plots in front of a party can be an extremely useful strategy. There are also other ways that players can be involved in more than one plot. It could be that something they need to save the world is also needed for a local noble to state their claim, dragging them into political situations. One of the most common times something just makes sense for me is when I'm dealing with multiple plots. In a particularly inspired moment (well, it seems that way at the time at least) I'll have an idea how to connect them together. It could be two plots that were previously unconnected or it can be another connection to add to the fabric of the campaign.

I do have to also give a bit of a warning though. One of the useful things about dangling multiple plots in front of a party is to gently let the party decide what kind of game they want to have and what interests them. However, if we just tie plots together anyway we can remove the element of choice. Instead, it will give more of an illusion of freedom since we will just connect the plots that didn't make it anyway. Of course, if it happens once it probably isn't much of a big deal. However, if you do it enough times that your players will expect it, it will probably be an issue.

Have Paper Ready

While genius can strike in the moment, it can be difficult to remember after the fact. Keep some paper ready for when these kinds of decisions are made. It would be a shame to have a good idea in the moment, start setting stuff up and forget it.


In Combat Actions

Players, due to their decision making process being limit to their characters, often have a chance to more deeply think about their combat actions. While the rest of the party is taking their turn, players can still weigh their options. This often makes for rather creative attempts that aren't covered by the rules. These, more so than other situations, are particularly challenging.

Let's say a party member casts grease on an enemy and another party member tries to catch them on fire using a torch or a fire based cantrip (assuming D&D 5th edition rules). What happens next? The issue is, like I mentioned previously, we risk setting a precedent. While we want this to be effective since it is creative and takes two player turns, we also don't want it to be more effective than a fireball, for example. We also don't want it to be the default combat action going forward either. It should have advantages, disadvantages and also some level of situational dependence. Unfortunately, this is more of a skill than an art from my experience, is learned through practice, and will also be partially dependent on the group in question.


Often times many details are left until later when making a player character. Elements of backstory are a big one that come up often. If you are entering a campaign setting you've never even heard of before, it might take some time to get a handle on it so that you can make those specific details of your backstory. After spending some time in a certain area of with a particular character, however, inspiration can strike. Maybe this was their home city all along but they were trying to keep a low profile and didn't say anything before now. Maybe it turns out the player knows another character but since they were 8 years old at the time, they aren't recognized. Regardless of the means, that time being in a weeds tends to lead to that “oh, that makes sense” moment that helps the character get further developed. I've also seen plenty of players who like this kind of thing as a core part of their gameplay. They want to be thrown head first and improv their way through.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Dungeon Master: Buildup

There are many tools at the disposal of a craft Dungeon Master, and a classic one is clever use of buildup. Over the course of a campaign, there are many things we can build up with locations and people probably being the most common. Who doesn't want to build up their big bad a bit? However, like all things, there are some difficulties that come with the collaborative nature of role-playing games. For that reason, I hope to share some of my experiences. Hopefully it helps someone out there or starts some interesting conversations.

Extent vs. Impact

One of the big conflicts with buildup is how much we build up and the overall impact we get. Doing too much buildup in the wrong kind of way can actually hurt us. At the same time, if we build things up in an exciting way we can still fall into a trap. If we build up a character or location up for the entirety of a campaign and due to luck, creativity or a combination of both the players make short work of it, we created a disappointment. There are some creative and not so creative ways out of this (liches and revenants in particular will be back) but in general it's an issue. There is always the risk of disappointment, it's just the more time and care we spend on buildup the more we highlight one particular thing and increase the risks. If we pull it off, however, we gain. There is also the generally safe method of buildup that leaves things in mystery. Someone sent an assassin and we won. But who? And why? This kind of buildup is less direct and tends to focus on outcomes. It's different than hearing whispers of an incredibly powerful legendary wizard who seems to have returned. Even if they find the source of the assassin and take it out, they still had a combat encounter. If it was a tense one, all the better for the buildup. However, it's important to make sure something comes with this kind of buildup. You'll want to address the source of the assassin at some point unless the players decide to willingly avoid it for some reason.

Unanswered Questions

Events and actions had implications and side effects. These make for great buildup to later parts of a campaign. I mentioned this earlier, but the assassin example is one such case. The way it tends to work is that the players will accumulate questions as they go through their campaign. As they get further along, they'll slowly get answered and lead to more questions before everything, or almost everything, is revealed. Also, as mentioned earlier, there needs to be a reveal. Building up to nothing rarely goes over well. It could even be unexpected, disappointing but hilarious. However, that is still a buildup to a punchline.

Telling and Talking

Hearing things about events that are happening, and certain people can go a ways to building up characters and scenarios. Knowing ahead of time who they just got on the bad side of makes things far more interesting and tense that suddenly making enemies with nameless guy number 505. It's a classic method. “Wait, thee nameless guy 505?” The trick, however, is in doing it in a non-boring way. Players tend not to like their campaign going on pause in order to let the innkeeper go on a long story time that says everything that needs to be said. Instead, it tends to need to be spread out over multiple people and events. At least 3 works fairly well for me. Some repetition can help as well, but it shouldn't be as detailed as the first or it can get grating. I find 3 tends to be the magic number in those cases as well.

Actions Speak

Personally, I find that actions and events speak far louder than my characters. It's one thing to hear a story about how powerful a magic weapon is from an innkeeper. It's another to have your players walk across grass turned to stone, hear it crunch as they walk on it, in order to find the magic weapon sitting in the middle of a platform unguarded. It's right there, fit for the taking. It's just that no-one has been stupid enough to move it until now. Everyone in the surrounding area seems to be terrified of it. You can be sure that your players will be expecting something from their new magic weapon. Talking is a way to build things up and yes, technically talking is an action but I find it much better and easier to think of actions in general when I'm thinking about buildup. It's less restrictive that way. It also gives you tools to build up to different things differently. Why should the nearly unknown cult that controls the city be built up in the same way as the puppet leader they put as the head of the city?

Foreshadowing and Uncertainty

There is another factor that makes such things difficult in tabletop games. We can't see the future as Dungeon Masters. However, buildup kind of suggests that we know where things are going. Trying to salvage buildup after thing didn't go according to plan is extremely hard to do and is basically an art. It's because we need to balance not making the buildup worthless at the same time as allowing freedom of choice. In these cases, I also find actions are extremely important. Actions can be interpreted. They don't necessarily have one set meaning. This tends to give more room to be creative than when things were directly told to the player characters. That said, thinking of talking as actions still allows some wiggle room. The people that players talk to could be unreliable or have their own reasons to knowingly lie. This adds an element of interpretation to the buildup and can still make it seem like it was always this way. I would recommend having a light touch for this. It can really make a confrontation more memorable but remembering it, executing it well, and having it be adaptable is tricky.

What To Build Up?

Particularly cool, unique, or important locations tend to be built up. The big villain also needs to have some kind of buildup. You don't want them to come out of nowhere and be meaningless. However, not everything needs to be build up. Having it targeted makes it more effective. Put another way, if everything is being built up nothing is.

Don't Sweat It Since It Comes Naturally

A large part of buildup comes naturally. Players will tend to have multiple run ins with the big bad. These run ins act as buildup. They create a history, build players expectations due to exposure to the character and if done enjoyably, lead to an interesting positive association. They may still hate them and dread seeing them, but also cautiously look forward to future confrontations. Likewise, a super hard to get to location will be hard to get. It may require guide to find, special supplies and a special path. All of this acts as buildup for the location. Trying to shove buildup where it doesn't belong can be one of the worst things you can do as far as buildup is concerned.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Dungeons & Dragons: Xanathar's Guide to Everything Review

Review copies (standard and limited edition) courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

  • New player options in the form of class paths.
  • New rules for Dungeon Masters. Some of them, such as how to determine area of effect shapes, would have been very welcome in the original books since they are so vital. At this point though, I think we've got a hang of it but multiple methods are provided. The new encounter guidelines are also nice and allow us to see how levels map to challenge rating.
  • Random encounter tables for just about every location.
  • A bunch of low powered magic items.
  • New downtime activities. And they are good! And they provide role-play and campaign growth opportunity through the new idea of rivals!
  • Lots more full colour art. It's no different than other books in this edition but lots of art should always be commended.
  • The page design is nice. The page outline and numbering are visually pleasing and fit into the style we've come to expect of this edition.
  • Binding on both of my books were perfect.
Could Go Either Way:
  • I'm not sure if I got unlucky but there were some odd artifacts on a couple of pages in my standard edition of the book. My limited edition was perfect though. If you are picking one out at the store, and are a perfectionist, you may want to keep an eye out.
  • 17 pages of tables for possible NPC names. I'm never against tables in my books but some people will definitely consider this padding, especially when the book is already on the shorter side.
  • It's a bit on the short side. It's 192 pages long but it's a full price book. It's even shorter if you remove the tables of character names. This makes it hard to recommend over say the Monster Manual if you don't have it, which is a 300+ page tome.
  • Few options that weren't well received by me or my players. The 3 that stood out most at my table were the Samurai archetype, and the spells Invulnerability and Mental Prison.
  • No PDF, though electronic versions are going to be provided. This is almost there, but I think that if such a version was included as a bundle with the physical book it would be far better value. I also not needing to depend on the internet. One day.*

* Denotes nitpicking.

Xanathar's Guide to Everything Covers
The Covers for the books. I'm quite a fan of these.


It's already been a bit more than 3 years since the release of D&D 5th edition (if counting from the release of the starter set), and in that time we've had a few new options for players here and there. We had some in the earlier adventures like Princes of the Apocalypse, as well as The Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide but so far it's been pretty restrained this edition. Instead we got adventures that also functioned as introductions to settings. Curse of Strahd and Out of the Abyss, I mean you. In Xanathar's Guide to Everything, we get a whole slew of new class options and spells for players to choose from, but also a bunch of new options for Dungeon Masters to sprinkle through their world. We also get some new downtime activities and rules which appeal to both. Okay, Dungeon Masters can also use the new spells and re-engineer the new class options, but if you lock a clever Dungeon Master in a room with nothing but elastics and toothpicks they'd still come up with a rule system by the time you let them out. With that overview out of the way, let's jump into the meat of Xanathar's Guide to Everything, which is kind of like The Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide with less fluff about the Sword Coast.

One of the spells I've already employed in one of my games. It's the kind of thing that makes for a good entrance for a necromancer. Dance, puppets, dance. It's also a good example of the kind of art to expect in the book.

New Player Options

Just about every class gets some love in some shape or form. New class options and new spells are probably the biggest highlight for players. The section on spells takes up 25 pages while the new class options take up over 50. As well, we get a small number of new racial feats. The suggestions for coming up with character stories are also nice to see. Characters are more than a bunch of class levels after all. These take up around 10 pages.

If you'd hope to love every option, I have to say that I did not. There were quite a few that I'm really looking forward to see at the table. I've got a player really wanting to try out the War Magic option. I also based an encounter around an Oath of Conquest paladin in last week's game. Spells are always a fun resource for Dungeon Masters and I'd be lying if I didn't sprinkle a few of them through my NPCs as well.

There were also a few features and spells that my players didn't want to see. My player who loves his fighters and other physical damage dealing characters had a beef with the Samurai option for fighters. He didn't feel the math quite worked out due to the ability to regain a use of their main ability every start of combat, leaving the Battle Master outmatched one on one when fully prepared. I tend to flip flop on this point because the Battle Master has some incredible tricks up their sleeve. Invulnerability and Mental Prison were more universally disliked. In the case of invulnerability it was due to the massive advantage while still being able to cast out damaging spells while for mental prison it was the lack of save attempt after the spell succeeded. At this point in my RPG playing career I've come to realize that there will probably never be a book of rules/player options where I'm happy with everything. A few such issues can still make an otherwise flawless book or rule system frustrating. We'll see how they go over during play. I did steal some parts of the Samurai class option for an NPC, so there is always that.

New Magic Items

The magic items included here cover a couple of changes and are a welcome addition. They aren't the earth shattering objects of power that will slay liches in a single turn. Instead, they are mostly common items that provide roleplay opportunities. I'm happy to see more of these kinds of items but if you were expecting a healthy range, from small and insignificant outside of role-play opportunities to earth shattering, you'll be disappointed. I have already thrown a couple of items from this book into one of my campaigns and they went over well. I'm confident there will be more to come. Just know what you are getting into.

New Rules

Similarly, we Dungeon Masters get some attention too. Of the total 192 pages (~174 if we don't include the character names), just under 70 of them are dedicated to Dungeon Master stuff such as new rules and guidelines. Some parts are more useful than others, such as the new downtime activities being far more useful than the rules for determining area of effect (seems like something that should've been in the 3 core books), but they were still nice to see. For me, the downtime activities and the emphasis on rivals as well as complications within them was one of my favourite parts. It takes it from a simple thing to do between sessions to something that contributes to the collaborative stories being told.

The new trap rules were nice to see. As well as outlining the same "simple" traps like in the Dungeon Master's Guide, they also brought up the idea of complex traps. These act kind of like a restricted legendary creature as they have an initiative score, and even give experience. Personally though, I was really happy to see the alternate guidelines for encounter design present. We've seen them in Unearthed Arcana before, but I personally feel that having an easy mapping between level and challenge rating was long overdue. The table is found on page 91 and roughly mirrors mine from the Unearthed Arcana. It's still not terribly consistent so I'd recommend using it as a reference and not bothering to memorize it. Generally taking the player level, dividing by 2, rounding down, and subtracting one will get you to within 1 challenge rating. It's not perfect, and will tend to either get the number right or underestimate, but it can be useful as a quick estimation tool. It's also nice knowing how many low level creatures you can throw at a certain leveled player at a glance.

One of my favourites from this book. It may be my bias showing though, since some of my favourite painting are by Aivazovsky. What? I like seascapes and boats.

The Art and Book Build Quality

The book is what we've come to expect from this edition of D&D. It's got good quality pages and a good hard cover backing. My bindings were perfect and my only real complaint in this section is the artifacts present in my standard edition version of the book. One thing I feel should be noted is that along with the smaller page count, the book's spine was made thinner. I quite like how the pages fit in the closed book since it helps combat the wavy page issue that can happen.

The art is also in the style we've come to expect and also plentiful throughout. From diagrams helping to explain the rules for determining area of effects to the illustrations of class options, it's well done. I would have liked to see more in the style I prefer (more realistic) but it's without a doubt well done. With how consistent these books have been this edition, I feel like I can almost copy paste this section. I do have to say though that some sections don't lend themselves as easily to art as others.


The suggested price is the same 50 USD that most books cost in this edition. It's not quite as short as the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide but it's about 30 pages away. I'm sure you'll be able to find it for cheaper but I can see this as being one of the bigger issues with this book. If you are missing the Monster Manual, and Curse of Strahd, it may be hard to justify getting this book over those two unless your players are starved for new options. My person bias aside, the value calculation is influenced by the length factor.

What I felt was Missing

I would have liked to see more ranger spells here, especially since it's the class that probably needed the most help in this area. The melee focused ranger in particular doesn't have too much to choose from if they want to try to use their magic to enhance their melee attacks, while the ranged version has a lot more to choose from. This was a perfect chance to address this issue.

It would have also been nice to have a few more commonly useful map templates at the end of the book. Call me spoiled but I would have liked a map or two out of a guide to everything. It's a bit nitpicky since we already have quite a few maps provided in other books, but it would have been a nice to have.

Generally, I think 30+ pages more would have made the book a far easier value proposition for a lot of people. It is a bit short page wise and while I'll definitely be using things from it, it cuts a bit too close for me to be overjoyed with the price. At this point in this edition's life new books will face competition from already released books that people haven't had the chance to buy yet, which further complicates the value calculation. Opportunity cost, our good old friend, makes his appearance once again. Obviously a good sale or deal will take this complaint away though.

Free Stuff

Nothing to see here. Move along.


I began this review comparing Xanathar's Guide To Everything to The Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide because I think it gives the best idea about what this book is. It's similar in that it attempts to provide new options for players but also things that would be interesting to Dungeon Masters. Where it differs is that instead of providing fluff on the Sword Coast, something that would be of interest to a Dungeon Master wanting to set their game in the Sword Coast, it provides new mechanical options such as downtime activities. If you really wanted new player options, this is probably the closest the edition has so far to a Player's Handbook II. However, due to its shorter length, lack of brand new classes, and a desire to appeal to Dungeon Masters as well, it isn't quite there. It's more like part of a Player's Handbook II mixed with part of a Dungeon Master's Guide II, though probably leaning more towards a Player's Handbook. What you need to do is ask yourself if you want something that will give you a setting with an adventure, help flesh one out, provide new mechanics to throw into your game, or new options for your players to create their character's with. If it's player options, this is the first book outside the core books that you'd want to get. There are also some mechanics and options for Dungeon Masters, but the choice isn't as clear cut since we have other books to choose from as well. This of course will be tempered by the price, which could make other books in this edition that you haven't had a chance to enjoy all the more tempting. 

This is a picture of the artifact I mentioned. 
Xanathar's Guide to Everything Book Artifact

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Some Thoughts For Undead Campaigns

There are many kinds of campaigns you can run and many ways to describe a campaign. However, people tend to have certain ideas, themes, or enemies they prefer to use. In my case, it's undead. As a Dungeon Master I like using them as my baddies and as a player I like going up against them. Undeath is a very general idea that allows for a lot of freedom. Since I've got quite a lot of experiences and opinions on the matter, I'm hoping that working through some of it here will help people who are considering running such a campaign in the future.


Some themes naturally come with undead. Life and death, to some extent right and wrong, the idea of forever, corruption, inevitability, fear, and what is natural are ones that quickly come to mind. However, we have many other options as well. One of the great things about undead is they can be used with other kinds of themes in supporting positions. Anything that can die can become undead. That gives us an incredibly large set of creatures that we can draw on and also themes to explore. A necromancer could have an undead army, but their goals could touch on many other themes not yet listed.

Undead Are Typically Evil

In role-playing games, undead are typically evil. There are exceptions in some adventures, but more often than not they are evil. Becoming a lich turns a creature evil. Becoming a vampire does the same. Playing with this little element can have interesting implications. In a world where the existence of the afterlife is known for sure, and methods to get there are known well as well, what kind of person would willingly choose to remain in the world as a vampire and lich? For what reasons? Exploring this question could lead you to campaign after campaign and villain after villain. Could people use skeleton guards for good? Good necromancers can be a lot of fun, especially when your players see necromancer and automatically think evil. Playing with those expectations without coming off as a jerk might take some skill and experience though.


When dealing with undead centred campaigns, there are a few world questions that come up quickly. How are undead created? Why would they be created? What do people think of undead? There could be a kingdom that relies on necromancy for its armies. Otherwise they'd be wiped out. Clearly they would not think negatively of necromancy. Their enemies though? I think that part is obvious. What happens if someone gets caught with undead? What if they get caught using necromancy? Are vampires known or simply the stuff of stories?


Undead, even without getting into the ability to turn any creature into a skeleton, zombie, or other version of itself, have quite a variety of different badies that can be thrown at your players. Even just looking at big bads, there are many options. Vampires, liches, death knights, wights, and revenants all provide different ways to make a campaign awesome. Take revenants. Right off the bad, you can make your party out a group of revenants out for revenge against the big bad. You could also have the opposite where your party is being chased by a revenant and they don't know why. This one can be a bit tough if players don't like you trampling on their backstory (it's very valid not to like having your backstory partially re-written as a player but some players are fine or even like it) but there are other ways to make it work, such as a helper NPC that they are traveling with (if this is the case, it's best to have 2 or 3 so it's not obvious who it is). The possibilities are really quite vast and varied depending on which one you pick. Just look at vampires and Ravenloft. Some monsters are obviously more inspiring than others, though.

Large Body of Work

There is really quite a large body of work you can draw on when dealing with undead. There are many legends surrounding them, many books that can help inspire you, and a massive amount of horror movies to draw inspiration from. Though it may seem weird to shamelessly steal from these sources, I find it does make it much easier for me to find inspiration when I need it. It could be as small as encounters or as large as campaign ideas (everyone has watched a movie and thought “I think it would be better like”) but in general, getting those creative juices going can be one of the hardest parts.