Sunday, 22 April 2018

Monster Ideas: Lich

From high level to low level, there are many different creatures you can throw at a party and many different ways to do so. For a while now I've wanted to go through a few different monsters and throw around some ideas for their use. It's an exercise that has helped me before in the past and I hope that people who find this get some use out of it as well. And given my long standing tradition of sending hordes of undead for my players to kill, where better to start than with the evil old lich?

Why Lich?

These guys are amazingly versatile. From big bads, to interesting enemies in a dungeon to a cool thing for a low level party (this is atypical but I'll get back to this), there is a lot you can do with these guys. They also hit on a few themes that I for one find cool. Life, death, undeath, all the cool stuff. The phylactery is a quest just waiting to happen as well. Since just killing them isn't enough either, and liches typically don't carry their insurance policy on them, chances are high that players will meet the same one more than once before finally putting an end to them.

Playing With Alignment

These guys are evil. Right? Well, playing around with their alignments and goals can yield a lot of interesting situations. One of the first campaigns I played in had a lich that had been transformed against their will and tried whatever they could do to regain control of their own unlife. They couldn't escape undeath as long as their phylactery was held captive and they couldn't rebel without consequences either.

While these creatures tend to be portrayed as evil, all of the other alignments present opportunities for something new. It largely goes back to what your world thinks about trying to dodge the regular flow of life, but I've seen interpretations before where they were the main ally for the players. Now, of course, they had their own interests and their undead nature fed into their character and how they saw the world. However, they did try to help the party as well and wanted to leave the world in a better state. One I remember very fondly, though I don't recall if I've mentioned him before in my writing, was a brilliant inventor and mage that would massage events in order to have his inventions fall into the right hands to spread and improve the world. The only issue is that things rarely go as planned, and the inventions would often cause much destruction as well.

Liches For Low Level Players

Low level players also want cool things to fight and situations to encounter. Whether you are level 1 or 20, undead can still be cool and tough. For level 20, the classic lich is perfectly fine. For low level players, a rotting, falling apart lich who stays undead through pure sheer of will after being starved without their phylactery is a lot of fun. Now, I'd be careful about throwing one of these at your players without them knowing what happened here. Otherwise the next time they meet a lich, it will be an absolute disaster.

Big Bads

They tend to have tons of undead minions, and possibly cults working in their name. They spin plans that span hundreds of years thanks to their lack of permanent death. They are one of the first things that comes to my mind when someone says “big bad”. That said, we can have a little more fun with these guys than that. Since anything can die and become undead, we can have a lot of fun with undead armies. Undead minotaurs, skeletons, ogres, and dragons all rolling in and attacking a city. Being that they are spellcasters as well, you can do amazing things by just tweaking their spell lists. Having them as combat challenges for lower level ranges can also work, but you'll need some justification for it. The methods that come to mind are having their spellbook destroyed, reducing their spell list, a curse preventing or injury preventing them from regaining spell slots, or simply never being strong enough to complete the process themselves and instead having been turned by their more gifted master (their magic skills reflect this).

What Happens After?

D&D and the campaigns I've been involved in often have legends of liches that became for greater than mere liches. From gods to forces of nature that project their strength from the negative energy plane, the goals of a lich and what they achieve can be vast. Don't feel you need to stop at just a lich.

Spell List

Since we are dealing with a spellcaster, remember that playing with the spell list can greatly change everything. You can make a defense minded lich, a pyromancer, a seer that manipulates events for centuries, and many others. It should, of course, reflect their character but this versatility helps keep them from becoming boring.

Lich Battles

Another one of my fond memories was a conflict hundreds of years long between two liches. They bested each other and destroyed their bodies time and time again, savagely unravel each-other's plans both for reasons of gain and spite, but had never been able to find each-other's phylactery to finally end it. It's was an entertaining thing to witness and also has a lot of potential as the setup for a campaign. It lends itself quite well to games of intrigue as well.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Dungeon Master: Creating Random Dungeons

Exploring dungeons is a long time staple of tabletop role-playing. Naturally, it's been a staple of D&D for decades as well. However, coming up with dungeons is a bit of an art. There are so many elements to consider in designing a good one. On top of that, sometimes things go off the rails. What do you do if your players jump into catacombs before you had expected? The first thing that comes to mind is to just make things up as we go along. However, due to the complexity of the situation, this is easier said than done. It is for this reason I hope to give my advice on the matter.

Word of Caution

What we are talking about here isn't an easy thing. The difficulty also increases the larger a dungeon that we create. Typically if you are in this situation, it's because things went off the rails. I'd say that 9/10 times, having the dungeon prepared a head of time leads to better results unless the Dungeon Master in question really knows what they are doing.

A Bit of Cheating

I'd be very hesitant making up every element of a dungeon on the fly. However, we don't have to. There are a myriad of techniques at our disposal to make things easier. This means that a large portion of the work will be done on the spot but many elements will be taken ahead of time. Sometimes a bit of cheating like this is required. One of the most effective cheats I've found is the use of dungeon tiles or 3D printed terrain. Being able to grab pieces and put them together on the fly like makes it far easier than coming up with every bit of the area. Sometimes restrictions are a good thing for creativity, and I'd argue that when doing things in a crunch like we are in this situation, they are beneficial.

I'd also recommend some pre-made room designs for common uses. Bedrooms, hallways, halls, and chapels are some very commonly used elements that can easily be reused or combined. As you go through more campaigns and gain more experience as a Dungeon Master, you also naturally build a backlog of these things. Previous maps can be a great source for old parts that can be changed for new uses. This can be done both by changing the structural features (adding columns, increasing the room size, adding balconies) or by rearranging the furnishing inside.


If I start making things up on the spot with no foundation I find myself in a kind of paralysis. Depending on how inspired I am, it can last a few moments or minutes. However, I don't want to be stuck for minutes trying to think of things when running a campaign. To make matters worse, this kind of paralysis can return later in the session when I've exhausted my previous inspiration. The thing that works best for me in these situations it to ensure I have a place to draw from. It can be a goal to work towards, a concept for an area, a fragment of a story I want to tell, or a bunch of other things.

Themes and Ideas

I mentioned how I like a starting point to work from. I've also written before about how I value themes for campaigns, and locations/dungeons are no different. When coming up with a dungeon on the spot, this is typically the hardest part for me. I want a good theme or idea to work from. Otherwise I'll get into trouble later. This is why I make myself a list just in case. That way I have a list of ideas I feel are strong enough to make things up on the spot. I typically aim for 3-5 of these on reserve at a time and sometimes I'll think of a new list as an exercise. As an example, here was my list from my last session:
  • A dungeon where all of the traps have decayed into basically being useless and all of the real dangerous are coincidences caused by decay.
  • A dungeon made by the followers of an insane god/demon. Probably includes many dead ends and insane things like a table attached to the ceiling.
  • A dungeon heavily looted previously, but not completely. The best loot is still waiting to be discovered, though in the best hidden places.
  • A castle that was the sight of a massive battle, resulting in the deaths of everyone when the wizard of the castle decided to take everyone with them. When entering parts of the battle are relived.
  • An ancient dungeon expanded upon and expanded upon again over a thousand years of use.

Points of Interest

I tend to feel that every dungeon needs to have at least one point of interest. It'll be that one element that is remembered later. It could be related to a character. It could be related to an incredibly inventive trap. It could be related to the location, or what the whole dungeon implies. I also found that entire rooms work the best. This way the whole point of interest can be easily encapsulated for drop in use. I aim for between 1-3, depending on the size of the dungeon. It's an easy way to add that special element to a dungeon when being put on the spot. It also gives flexibility. If you have a moment of inspiration for a point of interest that is even better than your fall back list, you've won. If you need to use your fallback list, you are still adding something special to the dungeon. It also gives you a minimum level to fall back on for the dungeon, just in case the inspiration doesn't hit. The rest of it can be more easily thought up on the spot, though of course it will still be challenging.

Random Generation Tools

There are different tools we can use to generate dungeons randomly. From the classic use of tables to generate them (see the end of the Dungeon Master's Guide), to online software, to randomly picking up tiles, there are many ways to get the basic outline of a dungeon. In general I would recommend doing this ahead of time and tweaking things in order to refine it into a better product. When doing it off the cuff, we don't have that luxury. In this case, I find looking at the situation and choosing based on what I think best fits is my first choice. After that, that's when I go to the random options in order to not waste time and hopefully get me to the next stage where I'll have my inspiration. Even so, I'll overrule or adjust things as I see fit to fit my theme or concept from above. This is why I find having a theme or concept is so important for me. It gives me a good place to modify and create from instead of just making everything up. The upside for me is less paralysis and that it seems more consistent.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Dungeon Master: Intrigue Tips

There are many different campaigns you can run. One that my players in particular like are games of intrigue. Inner politics of wizards, gods, kings, and anything else that can amass power are all good candidates for this kind of game. They are also some of the hardest kinds of games to run. Things need to fit together well, and plots need to be put into motion. In the hopes of helping someone out there and consolidating my thoughts, I'll be writing about this very topic today. I'd love to hear differing opinions on the topic as well.

Make Sense

Plots and intrigue games should make sense. The reasoning behind actions, where they lead, and how everything fits together need to make sense. How else can we expect the players unravel them? Above all, don't jettison it in the hopes of shocking your players. If players can predict what is happening next, it doesn't necessarily mean that the campaign is predictable and cliche filled. It could just be that your player was clever and that the events make sense. Don't throw it all away in the hopes of trying to fool or catch your players. I've seen this way too often. It also partially depends on the degree. Seeing part of the plot ahead of time will be far less detrimental than having every twist and turn predicted after the first session. If you do decide to change things from the original vision, it should still make sense in context. A twist that doesn't fit and came out of nowhere doesn't typically go over well in my experience.

Don't Be Afraid

I've seen intrigue games grind to a halt because the Dungeon Master was too worried about railroading. Intrigue centred games will naturally need characters that have their own goals. This naturally tends to lead to more fixed narratives. However, so what? It's my experience that a more restricted story is what people are often after when they want to play an intrigue game. They don't need to be able to go anywhere they want or have all their plans come to pass. They want to be foiled, betrayed, make powerful allies, uncover secrets and much more. There is, like all things, a balance to be found but I've found that it's better to not be afraid and try to give your players what they want, though not exactly what they want. What my players don't want when they join an intrigue campaign is for nothing to happen. They also probably don't want to just explore the local ruins. If it's a narrative and character centred story of politics and betrayal, great. Just don't forget to keep an ear out to make sure you are hitting the right notes. Also don't make a campaign where your players don't need to be there.

Have An Aim

Why is the intrigue happening? Saying you are running an intrigue campaign isn't really saying much. You need a reason, characters, events happening, and reasons for people to create plots. Just throwing your players into a room and expecting things to go well probably isn't a good idea. You need to have a goal for the intrigue to take place, and for your players to interact with others. Trying to raise allies to stop a big bad is one such classic example. It gives a reason to proceed, an ultimate goal, and helps with developing the rest of the campaign. The big bad could look for other supporters as well. Or perhaps the players will need to try to organize a secret overthrow. This is inspired by a session from a few years ago that I remember quite vividly. There was no goal and nothing really happened outside of conversation that went nowhere. I feel the intrigue needs to be there but the players should be influencing it.

Don't Force It

If you don't have an idea for an intrigue campaign, there's nothing wrong with trying something else. Intrigue can and does often naturally happen over the course of a campaign. It is also a means towards a goal that players can seek out to solve their problems. The same way some players may be prone to trying to kill everything in their path (which is often well suited to a dungeon delve), others may try to plot their way through everything. The reason I say not to force it is rather simple: if you do, you risk running an aimless game or one with an aim that doesn't really progress. Intrigue sorts of games rely heavily on the premise, goals, NPC characters, and interesting plot twists. You also run the risk of disappointing your players if you promise an intrigue campaign and fail to deliver. If you are selling your players on it, be ready to deliver. Of course, intrigue games can also have combat, or exploring the local tomb to return something of value. However, when we run this kind of campaign intrigue is an element we are prioritizing above the combat and exploration. Your players expect will probably expect more than being paid, and sent on their way. Perhaps they will be framed. Perhaps someone will try to steal what they got from the tomb before they deliver it. Regardless, it's a question of what me emphasize.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Dungeon Master: Intuitive Rules

Being a Dungeon Master can be hard. There are so many rules to remember and use throughout our sessions. On top of that we come up with our own creatures that often follow their own rules. Keeping all of this in your brain at once can be difficult, especially for the new Dungeon Master. For this reason I often find Dungeon Masters doing whatever they can do in order to avoid having to remember. Part of this is what I call “Intuitive Dungeon Mastering”. Well, I actually shamelessly reused the term from someone I know, but let's not sweat the details. The idea here is that things should just make sense to the Dungeon Master. It's a simple idea but like so many simple ideas it can be easier said than done. And so, here is my advice when implementing the concept. As usual, it's a bit biased towards D&D 5th edition, but still applies in other rule systems.

Keep Rules Down

If you are trying to remember a whole role system, superfluous rules are the enemy. Commonly used rules are best remembered and if you can reuse them, it makes things doubly easy. They probably make sense to you already, and it's less to remember. Of course, while we often can reuse rules for our own evil ends (stealing spells, applying clever use of contests, etc.), it isn't always possible. The more alien the ability or situation the less likely it is that there is a rule that will apply. It's worth noting here though that the presence of spells makes recycling rules far more potent than otherwise possible. If we are designing a new rule, I think it should be because the situation is very alien or we want to add complexity. Complexity isn't always bad, such as when you are trying to model giant armies clashing or the new powers of your godly players. However, not everything should add complexity. Some things are natural extensions of what already exists, or we can use what already exists easily to do what we want.

Criteria for New Rules

Okay, well, we failed step one. We can't re-purpose an existing rule and apply it into a new situation. That, or it doesn't actually work in this case. Don't panic. Everything is fine. We can make a new one! Yeah. Only problem is that making rules is a bit of an art. There are awards for game design, and I don't have one of them. We want the rule to be easy to remember, to make sense in context, and to not forget it during play. Not forgetting a rule tends to be easier if you made up the rule since you have an intuitive understanding of the thought process behind it. However, given a bit of time it can be forgotten if it doesn't make sense. For those reasons I find it helpful to keep those considerations in mind when making new rules.

Make One Up On The Spot

Rules made up in the heat of the moment can be surprisingly versatile. Since they are done in the moment, they often make sense for the context that they were born from. You use your understanding of the rules to make something that probably makes sense to you in the moment. That is, of course, if you didn't have a complete mind blank. That's why you can't rely on coming up with a rule in the moment. If you get caught and need one, roll with something. My experience is that anything that keeps things moving is better than consulting rules for half an hour. If you realize there's a problem, amend it going forward based on your reflection after the session. Still, what I often want to do is capture that simplicity and intuitiveness. A rule thought up on the spot may not be final. It was fine to keep things going but you can further refine or simplify it afterwards after reflection on it. Rules in the moment can fit perfectly into a situation and be simple. However, they can also be half-baked.

Just For You

If you are running a session, chances are high that many of the rules you'll be using are meant for you and you alone. And you know what? That's fine. It makes things easier in a way. All you need is for the rule to make sense to you. Don't worry about making it fit into the rule system or how someone would understand them when you are in the heat of playing a game. If it makes sense to you, and you can easily remember it, what else do you need?

Rules are an abstraction. Your players typically won't know what determines your decisions in many cases. That's part of the fun too: not knowing how things will go. They are a tool to get you to take input from your players, add some input from yourself and return it back to your players. That, or give your players something that they will then begin to shape. What mechanism decides these things often isn't important. Whatever helps the Dungeon Master do their job is fine.There is a caveat though. To make a decision players need some level of understanding of what is going on. They may not know the rule, but they will need to know roughly how crazy a certain action is. If anything can happen at any time for any reason, how can we expect them to know what options are available?

So Give Up Making General Rules?

No, I didn't say that. I find that there are some situations that more often lead to intuitive rulings or rules. Sometimes there's nothing to be intuitive about because it never happened before. What is a problem is coming up with a rule that doesn't work for you because it is too complex, or too easy to mix up with another existing rule. It's a careful a balance between not reinventing the wheel every time, and knowing when a new rule is necessary.

If you are playing D&D, thinking about DCs is a good starting point I think. It might not even use a stat from the players, such as a death saving throw. However, they give you a quick way to determine difficulty for a task and a mechanism for resolution. They are the central resolution mechanic and you probably don't want to try to subvert it when it makes sense to apply it. The results of doing so can to be complicated. Piggy backing off of this rule feature also typically means that its easier to remember the rule. It's also amazing how much the existing spells can give you. Often they might need a bit of retooling but again, they make for an amazing starting point. Knowing how hard it is to do something is often one of the big questions in many situations.


Part of what I'm saying here also related to creating rules through rulings. If you decide that a certain rule applies in a situation where it may not be obvious, your ruling is establishing an intuitive rule. You can decide that if a flying creature was killed in the air, fell down 20 feet, and hit someone on the ground, they both will take the equivalent falling damage. That would be a great example of an intuitive rule. However, since it was moving before it got hit, you might put an extra 1D6 of damage. It had extra speed, so why shouldn't there be more damage? Such an argument is intuitive, and makes sense in context. Neither is wrong, but it's the kind of thing I'm talking about here. Depending on who your players are, they might always expect that damage now, or they may just be happy it happened once and not rely on it later. Many times these kinds of rulings lead to rules.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Dungeon Master: Let's Improvise

Planning is a big part of being a Dungeon Master. However, sooner or later our best laid plans will be left behind. Our planned scenario could have gone by faster than we anticipated, it could have been that players did something completely unexpected, or a bunch of other reasons. However, when it does happen the Dungeon Master will be need to improvise. Such a thing, particularly if you aren't used to it, can be challenging. It is for that reason I hope to give some advice. If you have your own, I'd love to hear it too.

Constraints Can Be Good

The first I want to say is that some constraints can be a good thing, particularly if you don't have much time to think of something. Some of the techniques I'll be mentioning do just that. They help narrow things down, which is one of the major issues when improving. When you can do anything, how do you decide what to do? If you are going into a campaign, there will be some implied constraints you'll end up putting on yourself. Your fight against a necromancer will probably features undead and necromancers. If you need to come up with an encounter, it'll probably involve one of the two. Of course, this situation is a bit awkward since almost anything can be undead, but still it narrows things down a bit.

Making Characters on the Spot

From my experience one of the most common things that happens is that you will need to make up a new character on the spot. The players are meant to walk into a bar and talk to a person. Of course, they decide to talk to someone else first on their way in. In these kinds of cases, you have a few options. You could just make things up on the spot and in a lot of cases, this will work out just fine. However, I find that I typically hit a wall when this happens enough times in a session. The most common issues here tend to be things like difficulty finding a name, a different enough personality or deciding on mannerisms. You could also plan out everyone in the bar ahead of time. That'll work, but I find that it tends to be more trouble than its worth. My preferred method is to have a cheat sheet of a few names, personalities, and mannerisms ready to go. That way, I can just grab a bunch quickly if I need to and continue. There is more power in this than you would expect at first since you can easily modify elements, or combines them together. There are long lists of names that you can use but for practicality I find it easier to have a smaller list ready to go as well. This list will need to be remade every now and then but this tends to take a couple minutes at most and I take care of this while planning the session.

There is another, more restrictive approach that works fairly well sparingly. There will be a couple of run-ins that you might want to have with certain characters. Typically, they are warnings not to go somewhere. However, they can be hard to fit in. Having the character and parts of their dialogue ready to go and throw in at a good time can be very effective. Since the players went to the barkeeper to ask a question, maybe he'll be the one to warn them about being out past dark. This is additionally made more powerful since you don't have to use the whole character. You can take elements (parts of dialogue is most common in my case) and give it to the barkeeper character you already wrote. You can bring out your other character later if needed, or if they avoided the barkeeper entirely. Everyone in town knows things are bad at night after all.

Think Like The Character

If you are new, you'll be understandably worried about doing things off the cuff. However, it's important to try to keep your character in mind and just go with it. Unfortunately, this is one of those things that comes with practice. However, it is also one of those things where Dungeon Masters have it harder than players do. Having to think up a character on the spot and play them is not uncommon for a Dungeon Master, and it's rather challenging at first. This isn't an excuse for lack of planning, but the attempt at improvisation is worth more than none at all, and it will be needed. Again, in this case it's about some restrictions imposed on us by the character we are playing. Part of the improvisation process is coming up with these restrictions. What do they know? What do they say? How do they speak? You'll be feeling for those questions and be making decisions right there. Like with names, you can have some cheats prepared a head of time. Still, I would recommend being some what comfortable with this situation because player actions can force you into this situation anyway. Just try to put your self in the character's situation and roll with it.

Dungeon Tiles

I tend to use dungeon tiles quite often. They can also be useful to help narrow down the general shape of an encounter location on the fly. You might have a couple of ready made locations (be it tile configuration or existing map) ready to go. You can also lay out a quick outline while describing some of the important elements. This is a bit of a skill that needs to be practiced as well but I found there are a few commonly used stall techniques. They aren't really stall techniques, since the Dungeon Master needs to specify these things anyway, but they do make it more seamless. After all, they don't need to sit there and wait. Thinking of any sounds, smells or obvious visual elements as they enter the room and giving them a quick mention eats up a few seconds. It tends to be one or maybe two, depending on how important the encounter is. An important element to think about is light (otherwise the human character will be confused about what they can see), hiding places, and sounds. You shouldn't make room interactions too long either. The magic is to be able to set up the encounter quickly while describing the location so your players don't ever need to wait. It's not easy to do and of course you'll miss now and then, but it's the ideal I try to aim for. Hit close and you are still fine. Dungeon Masters are often self-conscious of this situation, but players are often none-the-wiser and are just enjoying the game.


Another thing to keep in mind is that the rules are kind of malleable. Generally speaking, players prefer to play the game than rule lawyer in my experience. This means you can come up with your own when needed. You don't remember what the health of a skeleton is? Think of a number and use it. I say that with a caveat since it may set some expectations. Why was the zombie dragon we fought at level one so much easier? They are best handled when you have some justification as well (zombie dragon was clearly worn, couldn't even move as quickly, was clearly damaged, and made clicking sounds when trying to move). This will depend a bit on your group but I find it's more advantageous to keep things moving. At the end, think of standards, review the rules and make some notes for next time, or whatever else you need to do. It can be easy to forget a precise rule when you are new, when you are playing a complicated system with many supplements, or when you took a break. It will also happen eventually. Just keep going, try not to do it again, and when it happens don't let it grind the game to a halt. You have a rough idea, so you'll be reasonably close.

Write Stuff Down

If you had plans and things went according to them, you can get away with just reading over your planning notes in many cases. When improvising, this is not the case. Write stuff down. Maybe not at the exact moment since it's not always possible, but at least that day. It will save yourself a lot of issues down the line. Characters get filled in through interaction as well so you may need to make notes about your player characters that can be used later.


How reasonable things are is important to have in the back of your mind. This goes for both things you create off the cuff and for requests your players make. You want to let your players make creative actions. However, unless it's a very special kind of game you probably won't allow your ranger, without any arcana skill, to write a chalk circle allowing the party to teleport away. This goes both for how reasonable a player action is and how reasonable your response is. Again, there is no perfect answer for this as it depends on the group, but you should have a rough feel for it.


When improvising, it's easy to forget something. Even when you are not, there could be questions you forgot to consider. It's a big room and we have torches. How far can the humans in the party see? Expect questions. This isn't a bad thing, since it is a collaborative story telling. It also shouldn't make you too nervous. However, when such a question is asked it is best to address it clearly and quickly. If you are asked if they can see a creature on the tile, you could answer “yes”. You could also quickly point out which they can see and which they can't to avoid further questions. “How long will it take to get to that other city over there?” This is one of those that will need to be written down. It's also worth considering if the player character would know or if they would need to ask a potentially unreliable towns-person (well, he never has traveled that far in his life). Since players often ask questions, it should be no surprise that some level of improvisation is often needed like in the previously mentioned situations. However, I find new Dungeon Masters find these sorts of things easier to improvise than characters.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Dungeon Master: What and Who Characters Are

When playing games, the story and mechanics have an interesting relationship. They are linked and the way we interact with the mechanics are part of the story we experience. It is one thing to imagine your character as an awesome fighter, it's another to see them take on 4 skeletons without much trouble. The trouble is that sometimes we can get lost in the mechanics, the what, and forget to go back to the who. I know I'm guilty of this as well. Having been there, I hope my thoughts on the manner will help someone out there.

What vs. Who

For the purposes of this post/article thing, the what part of a character is what the sheet says. What is the character? What class are they? What's their background (mechanically)? What do they carry? The who is a bit more of a nuanced topic. However, a big part of it is “why”? Why do they choose to fight the way they do? Why did they turn out the way they did? There are also more nuanced questions of “what would the character do?” and “what would it take for them to do something?” The answers to these questions help tell us who the character is. If you ever feel that a tug towards an action that doesn't make sense from an optimization standpoint just because it's what your character would do, you probably found it.

Player Side

Player Creation

Get into a class based RPG system and you'll find yourself needing to choose a class. There are two main ways you can go about doing things here. You can have a character in mind and try to pick the mechanical choices that will make that character a reality. Of course you might not be able to have everything you wanted at level 1, but you can plan ahead for that. You could also take a look at the classes that are there, pick one that looks fun to play, and build a character around that. Both are fine options, and in fact picking the class first can help you get out of your comfort zone, but it does sometimes lead to the situation where we forget to tie it back to who the character is. After getting the class, we still need to go back to the start and thinking about who the character is. Some people can do this during the session and just roll with things as they happen. For the right people, that can work amazingly well, but sooner or later we'll need to consider who our character is.

How Events Influence Character

Over the course of a campaign, characters find themselves in a wide assortment of situations. They will gain and they will lose. All of these situations are potentials for character change and growth. Of course, every combat encounter shouldn't result in massive changes of character (unless you are playing a character with 50 souls in one body), but there will be some that can have an effect on your character going forward. Even if they don't have a long term effect, they can provide interesting ideas to explore in the short term.

Too often, especially with newer players, characters will end the campaign exactly as they started but with much more wealth. Coming with this, they'll approach every situation the same way. When you find yourself in a new situation and keep your character in mind, you may be surprised what you might learn about them. Or how the character seems to come to life and has a will of its own. Those moments of inspiration are magic and honestly one of my favourite parts playing tabletop role-playing games. You can't think of every situation for your character going into a campaign (and even if you could, it would ruin some of the fun), so those kinds of situations are important to building who your player is.

Magic Items

Magic items are an often missed chance for players to consider who their characters are. They are a way to do the previously impossible and a source of great power. How do they handle that? How far will they go for it? Is what they have enough? Especially in games that deal with themes of power, these questions can lead to many interesting role-playing opportunities. This is without even going into sentient magic items. Having someone to interact with so close and at the ready is an interesting situation. A classic situation is to have a magic item you vehemently disagree with and force to do what you think is right. However, even if you see eye-to-pommel with your magic item most of the time, there could be edge-cases where that is no longer true.

Dungeon Master

Our Characters

We are in a bit of a different position than players when it comes to characters. A player typically has one character that they know inside out. They go for depth. As a Dungeon Master we have to go both for depth and breadth. When playing villains we want to know very well who they are. However, with some characters it isn't needed. We can't fully flesh out every character either. We also don't get as much time to test our characters in-game and let them naturally evolve. As a result, I'd argue improvisation is far more important for us. Many of are characters tend to be just a couple sentences with an alignment and a stat block.

Being able to go from a mechanics to a character on the fly is difficult to say the least. For that reason I suggest some level of cheating. I've mentioned before how I like to have lists of names ready to go, as do tons of other Dungeon Masters I've had to the pleasure of playing with, but there are other things we can do as well. Instead of thinking about single characters in large groups of bad guys meant to be thrown away in an encounter, we can think about who the group are. Are they uniform? Do they share some kind of similarity? Why? Those questions tend to be a good start to be ready for improvisation. If we think about the larger story at large, we'll typically need to answer most of these anyway. Even in the case of wandering monsters, we'd need to know why they are there. The goal here is to reduce how much we need to make up on the spot. Now instead of thinking about the whole group, the campaign as a whole (why are they here?) and then the individual, we only need to think of the individual. We even have some names ready to go.

The first step tends to be the hardest because there is the most to consider. After that, we get into the stage where interacting with our players helps fill in the details for our characters. Our characters, again, tend not to be as complete as those of our players. There will be many gaps that need to be filled in to make them a complete character. However, this discovery over the course of the game is important to good improvisation in my opinion. I also find this stage easier since there is less to consider at once. It would be similar to what we would do if we were player playing our character. Remember though, players will get to know characters over time. They won't know everything about them at once. Often we both get to know the characters we create as we play.

Player Characters

We as Dungeon Masters have an idea of what who our players are and who they are playing. It's important to be careful here. We want our ideas of the characters to be at the very least reasonably close to what our players intended. Seeing a wizard, we can have our own ideas that come into play. However, just remembering that we might take our own expectations for player characters tends to be enough to avoid the major pitfalls. We need to know who they are in order to come up with good role-play opportunities, but we have some leeway as well. If we are slightly off, it's just a different role-play opportunity and won't be noticed. The bigger issue is when we get major things about the characters wrong (wrong faction deciding to talk to a certain player) or presuppose character traits. There are ways out of these situations (oh, sorry, I thought you were someone else) but even so, I find keeping these in mind is helpful. I want to provide interesting situations for our players to express and develop their characters. I don't want to shatter their immersion by treating a player character in a way that makes no sense given the way they see their character. This situation happens most often when a player runs into an “old friend” played by us.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Dungeon Master: Ships and Ship Combat

Campaigns based around travel and ships can be a great experience. From pirates to epic quests against horrors from the depths of the ocean, there are many ways to get good experiences out of such a setup. However, given that I've been involved in 2 campaigns with this setup, there was one major issue I noticed: locations for battles were often the same. After all, you are on a ship. If you get attacked you will be fighting on a ship. How can we make new and interesting locations then? Well, that's what I hope to explore here now. If you have your suggestions, I would love to hear them.

One Ship

One of the big issues that can occur is a stale combat environment. If the players have only one ship for the entire length of the campaign and the enemies always come to them, a lot of combat will occur on the same deck plan. The solution seems incredibly simple and obvious: don't always attack the players and have them attack others too. Pirates don't only get attacked, they also attack. If your game doesn't have your players as pirates, it may not be as easy. They'll have an item and it will be the bad guys attacking them as they try to escape on their ship. Having this occur a few times is fine. However, I've been witness to situations where it happened again, and again, and yet again.

Get Them Off the Ship

Don't want to have fight after fight on the same ship deck? Well, the easy way around this issue is to make sure to give players motivations and reasons to leave the ship. By doing so the scenery for fights changes. The problem here is that it can result in the ship emphasis being nothing more than window dressing or a method of travel to the real adventure. This point is not exactly clear since the special concerns that accompany ship use such as their ability to reach places nothing else short of flying can, maintenance, enhanced transportation capability and more make them have their own advantages. Window dressing can also be very important.

Damage and Effects

There are many things that can happen to a ship to change it for a combat encounter. Damage can leave debris that blocks off areas of the deck, forces areas to be difficult terrain, open up holes that allow creatures to fall to lower decks, and fire that prevents passage as well as causes damage. Two ships can ram each other and be bound into one. Some bigger ships can also have multiple decks, resulting in new opportunities for fights. Ships can also be sinking, or be shaken by rough seas.

Different Ships

Players don't always have to be stuck with one ship. They can trade up as the campaign moves on to get better and better ships. This is a bit of a double edged sword though. Players can get attached to one ship or prefer to get attached to one ship. In this way it becomes almost a character or important place for the campaign.

Emplacements and Ordnance

Cannons, ballistae, catapults (can throw alchemist's fire, acid, necklaces of fireball, and many other things), flamethrowers and many more options become open when on a ship. The size and strength of a ship allows you to carry weapons that would be far too big otherwise. Crates of alchemist's fire can burst into flames as a result of a well placed fireball spell and threaten to sink a ship. There's a lot to play with when you can lug literal tons of stuff.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Dungeon Master: One-shots in the Past

The typical flow of a campaign goes in one direction. Events and plots are afoot and players are thrown into the mess. Over the course of play, they get their bearings, learn the world's rules, and journey forward towards the conclusion. This works extremely well in practice, but sometimes we want to allow players to contribute to the past as well. One-shots are one mechanism to do so and can often work amazingly well. They can allow you to mix things up, play some new characters, engage players in different scenarios while also writing part of the same story. Ever thought, “hey, this would be cool to play through”? Sometimes you want to follow through with it. It could also allow you to build up or explore new areas and items that otherwise would not be possible. They also have unique challenges and that is why I want to go over this topic today.

Strategic Choice

Which things we decide to handle in this way is a strategic choice. You don't want to break every 5 minutes to play through a flashback. These should be big, meaningful events in the story. They could also have smaller side effects. One example from one of the games I was a part of had a player hide a magic item in a particular place. 100 odd years later, the main party discovered that same item in the same spot. The important part here was that it was a cool side effect. However, the purpose of the flashback wasn't to put the item there. Instead it was to stop the big bad guy which resulted in their underling taking over and being even worse (turns out they are responsible for the big bad coming to power over his more moderate master). This also got over the big problem with making players play through a tragedy. Since they knew going into the one-shot that things wouldn't end well (or how else is there more of a game?), they were prepared to lose these characters.


That last thing I said should have popped out at you. How is there more of a game if the players end up killing the villain in the past? We end up in all of the same problems as if we suddenly had time travel in our game, but without the get-out-of-jail-free cards of needing to preserve history or time not allowing the change. The massive risk with doing this is that it can end up being rail-roady. And, really, there isn't much of a way to avoid this completely. There are some things that must happen in the past. However, we want to still leave freedom for the players to figure out solutions to the problems they find themselves. The best way around this issue is to make sure to cast a wide net. Your players need to kill the big bad and they know that an underling will take over and be even worse. However, they might not know which one is which. They may never run across them. How they take care of the big bad is all up to them. However, they also know in the back of their minds that the end of the one-shot is not the end of the story. Unfortunately, this is part of the trade-off we make if we go down this path.

Overshadowing the Main Story

You don't want to overshadow your main story. Otherwise, why are we playing this one? We should be playing that one instead. There are, again, no clear cut answers here. However, remembering that this kind of thing is a stepping stone of the larger adventure can help a lot. It's less advice and more a state of mind I find helpful when thinking about these. They also often tend to be shorter, clear to the point, and less epic. A short term victory but long term failure is often helpful in this regard.

If things are equal, the main story has a way of outgrowing the one-shot because of the emphasis and time spent on it. We know we went back to go forward. We are now back, and keep going forward. This makes the one-shot just part of the overall main story. It's possible to break this, but typically the events done in the one-shot won't be as impressive as the future. If you think to yourself that the one-shot sounds better, something needs to be re-examined. One-shots have the clarity and focus aspect going for them, however, in the overall structure of the campaign they shouldn't be more impressive, more difficult, or the bigger solution to the problem.

Building a Campaign Setting Through One-Shots

One-shots allow exploration of areas and elements of the story. The story began with the theft of a magic item by a shady cult? The players could play the shady cult and kill these characters later as part of the story. Plan on going somewhere? You can explore the area first with a one shot. The events of the campaign involve massive earth shaking events? You can introduce the campaign through one of these events (kind of like the adventurer's league). A lot of this will depend on how comfortable your players are and if they event want this kind of experience. Some people want to be connected to their characters for the whole campaign. I sometimes feel the same way.

How Often?

Again, I'd go with the rule of 3. I would be very hesitant in doing more than 3 one-shots like this over the course of the campaign. I'm sure you could have a great campaign that was more fragmented in this fashion, however, it's beyond the scope of what I'm talking about here. That way it still keeps the campaign focused but also provides a highlight for an important event in the past, or an introduction. Having the trigger for all of the events shown to the players in this way can be very beneficial and entertaining for the right campaign. I've found introductions in particular are very good candidates for a one-shot, particularly if the events of a campaign don't have that discovery component where they try to figure out what's going on. However, you could also throw your players into the thick of things and have them unravel the plot. Both are good choices.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Dungeon Master: The One-shot Trilogy

Having just talked about one-shots, I thought it would be a good time to talk about one-shot trilogies. It's quite the seemingly contradictory term, however it's a nice framework available to Dungeon Masters. The idea here is simple. We've all seen movies that get extended into a trilogy. Each movie, ideally, should be a complete story on its own but taken together add up to something bigger. We can do the same thing in our games. It's really more of a three-shot, but “one-shot trilogy” is how I first heard it introduced and it stuck.

Complete Story

I've found that this kind of setup works best if each session is a full complete story. It's also what makes it a one-shot trilogy and not a super mini campaign. Mini campaigns can be a lot of fun too, but they are a different method and less restrictive. That's a nice thing, but sometimes more constraints help bring out the best work. The time spent for introductions before jumping into the meat of things decreases after the first section, since we'd have set up the settings and backstory by then and will be adding to it, but we'll still expect to have a complete story.

Rough Structure

In my rather short career as a Dungeon Master I've seen quite a few of these kinds of games. One of my earliest Dungeon Masters liked this setup because it meant that you could have a more involved story than a one-shot, but still had much better odds of finishing the whole story. It also let him play around with everything and come up with new concepts each time, which he liked a lot.

Seeing these play out, and seeing them happen a few times without having a specific term applied, there were typically some rough structures that came about. I think they are helpful to consider and think about, but they are also vague enough that they allow for a lot of wiggle room.

High Level Overview of General Structure


This introduces the player characters to each other, the world, and the conflict that will be the source of the story to come by having the players directly contribute to it. Mistakes made by the players bringing about the conflict, getting dragged into events already unfolding due to luck or fate, and willingly wading into it either naively or knowingly are common starting points.

Since we still have limited time to work with, I've found that trying to get most of the information relating to the trilogy is important at this stage. The biggest challenge here tends to be still having a compelling and interesting ending that ties things together nicely but still leaves room in the next one-shot to expand. In a lot of cases the main conflict hasn't been touched but some level of closure tends to work best.


The player characters have won a great victory. Or they prevented a crushing defeat but didn't exactly win either. Regardless, there is still work to be done. Complications can occur both as a result of the ending of the previous one-shot or also as a result of actions taken here. Progress should still be made towards the end goal, otherwise it could feel like meaningless meandering, but it shouldn't be a simple journey either. I've seen it work otherwise but it's not easy.

Since we've gotten most of our information out in the previous one-shot, we can jump into the meat of the adventure. We could have held out a few important revelations but by the end of this one almost everything should be known. If there are some shocking twists planned, making sure you can count all the new bits of information needed on one hand tends to be a good sanity test. Being interesting between 2 well focused sections like this can also be a challenge. Also make sure to wrap up the complications to some degree so that they can be neatly completed closed in the ending. The solution here tends to be to make sure it directly contributes to the ending/solution in some way. In practice this also means that a complication is introduced, partially addressed, but isn't solved. There is also some room for more complications in the next section, but it should be light to keep this structure and a natural result from the events here.

The Ending

It is now time to end things. This will either be a great victory, or victory won at a great cost, or a form of Pyrrhic victory for the player character's enemies (the enemy will now lose, though the players may not see the final blow). Things are wrapped up.

A large part of this often ends up writing itself. The challenge tends to be to close everything nearly. All of this is greatly contributed to by the foundation built by the previous one shots. If there is too much to close because the complications weren't properly handled, this section can be sloppy. Likewise, if we didn't manage to introduce everything previously, it may not feel like much of an earned conclusion. The pieces should be in play, can be guessed at, or aren't too much of a stretch. In other words, everything should be close by and setup. Now it's time to draw it all together and clean up. Ideally this section should be a lot of effort on the part of the players to bend things to their will.

Past 3 One-Shots

We can add more complication sections and extend this structure past 3 sections. This can work very well but doing too many complication sections can make things feel more drawn out than you'd want. It can also start to look like a regular campaign, which isn't what we are after here. The whole point of the restrictions is to give a focused and efficient story. This structure can be very refreshing after a long campaign.

Other Considerations

All three parts don't need to involve the same characters. I've played 2 of these where all 3 one-shot's didn't share player characters. In one, an ancient evil was accidentally unleashed by the players in one-shot 1, though they got what they were after. In one-shot 2, the same characters sealed the evil but were not able to destroy it. One-shot 3 had a different set of characters years later finding a way to find where the ancient evil's prison was to destroy it, racing against a group who would seek to release it again.

In the other, an ancient necromatic evil was unleashed. The players, unable to find a permanent solution, restored the status quo. Years later, the ancient evil was guarded ever since to prevent its release. Some of the player characters were descendants of the original group. A new plan was hatched to release the evil once again and the players stopped it. Finally, hundreds of years later a method to destroy the evil was finally found. However, the player character's, some of them descendants from the characters in the previous 2 one-shots, were unable to convince the establishment of following through with this plan. What followed was a story of betrayal and manipulation to attempt to release the evil before it was finally destroyed or failing that, keeping it intact but sealed. Break in and destroy it themselves or try to convince the authorities that it should be done were the main options. Trying to play long distant relatives of previous characters can be an interesting role-play challenge. Hopefully these outlines inspire someone out there. We succeeded in stopping the plot in one-shot 2, however, I suspect it may have led to an extra one-shot to close things off before heading into the conclusion if we failed.

Interconnected Trilogies

Instead of making more and more sessions in the same story, you can make trilogies that are connected in some way. It could be location, or it could be a common thread such as an antagonist with different plans over the centuries and millennia. Each attempt would be a vastly different plot that would take 3 one-shots to prevent. I've found that antagonists, players, locations, and items work quite well in this regard.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Dungeon Master: The Art of the One-shot

One-shots have many differences compared to long campaigns. These differences can make for unique challenges but also for unique experiences. The unique constraints often lead to different approaches out of pure necessity, but also new challenges. I can't possibly go over every challenge that could come up, but I hope to go over some of the most important ones. It also let's me put my thoughts down in a coherent way, which is always a plus. You don't realize some things until you try to write them down, after all.

Ideal Length

This kind of thing often comes down to person preference. However I find that 4 hours tends to work best for me. It gives a good amount of time to work with, and is still feasible amount of time for guests. Admittedly it gets kind of close to being too long for a lot of people, but that's roughly where you'd want it I think. A length of time as long as possible but still not inconvenient for your players. 2 hours can work too, but it's a very different skill. You need to be extremely precise and prepared for those kinds of situations and may need to push things along at times to keep them moving at the desired pace. Some groups can spent that long in an inn talking about the last adventure so it really is a challenge. However, it can also be a great experience because there is no filler or anything unnecessary. It's the condensed best things you could come up with.

What I Want

Typically when planning a one-shot, there are a few things I want. I want at least one major and iconic role-play situation. It's the kind of thing that right after, days later, perhaps even years later, they will talk about fondly. I also want to include some kind of combat encounter. People typically like their combat encounters so I usually feel that I want to have at least one. This way the decision of what character they chose means something. Otherwise, players who enjoy the combat aspect will tend to feel like I wasted their time forcing them to pick between a barbarian and a fighter.

I also find I get the best results if there is something else happening in the encounter. It could be the whole place collapsing on their heads, it could be someone trying to escape with something important, it could be an attempt to buy time while a baddie opens a portal to hell. It could also be something unique about the combat encounter itself, such as a creature capable of hiding in shadows or fog that uses hit and run tactics. Again, what I found best here is if there is some problem they need to solve. Everything I mentioned previously, put another way, is just a problem I'm presenting the players beyond “kill everyone”.

Pre-Generated Characters

Pre-generated characters can be a massive boon in these kinds of situations. It can be a lot to ask someone to create a character for a 2 hour session. This is especially true if the person never played a tabletop game before and you want to introduce them. In these cases you could whip one up yourself quickly a head of time after asking your players what kind of character they'd like to play.

It can also be a surprisingly good change to not come up with your own character. It's a great way to break a rut and it's also very safe. If it turns out you don't feel like you have a lot to work with the character you chose, you may never use them at the end of the session anyway. At the best case scenario though, you could find yourself enjoying a very different experience. Of course, a pre-gen character still leaves a lot of room for a player to make the character their own. You are given a starting point but where you take the character is up to you. It's the being pushed out of your comfort zone that can lead to great new experiences, though I must also preface this thought with the admission that it doesn't always work out. However, it can still be that all important seed. Different seeds can grow to different results.

Having this kind of power is also interesting from the perspective of a Dungeon Master. It further lets you have an element of control over the session and can be an opportunity to say something about the world. Limiting abilities and classes does the same, but it's a different mechanism. I would never advocate preventing players from making their own characters when they want to. It pays off massively from the perspective of player engagement. However, if you find yourself in a situation where you need pre-generated characters because your players won't have the time to create a character from scratch before the session, want the challenge or whatever other reason, it's a valid option. Some players don't mind the challenge either. They may in fact welcome a new character they never would've played had they had that control. If you have these players, there is nothing wrong with giving them what they want.

The Setup

Setup time is a big enough problem in long campaigns. Since we have even less time to work with, having things run like a well oiled machine is even more important. 10 minutes out of 4 hours may not feel like a long time during play to wait, but the number of things you could have done with those 10 minutes is surprising. It's also one of the easiest things to trim down while not drastically changing the adventure itself. Overrunning the time limit is very common.

If you can, have the rooms ready to go if you are using tiles. It always amazes me how much time this ends up saving over the course of a session. For a massive mega dungeon this isn't always possible, especially when using 3D dungeon tiles. However, you probably aren't going to be running a massive mega dungeon in 4 hours. If you can't get all of the rooms ready ahead of time, get as many as you can and have the remaining rooms planned out. With fewer rooms it's easier to remember, and you'd want to have notes ready as well. This goes for more than just the arrangement of tiles. You'll want to have well organized notes ready if you are like me. It speeds things up, helps me immensely, and at such a smaller scale tends to be easily manageable. The less amount of time looking at rules, the better.

The Ending

The ending is very important for a one-shot. You aren't building to something in the future like you can do in a normal campaign. This is where all the build up throughout the adventure was leading. It's now or never. Now, I'm not saying that you should always give your players exactly what they want. Most of the time you probably should come close, but ironically giving your players exactly what they want may not be what your players want. Making it just slightly different enough to have a bit of a surprise often works well from my experience. It's the idea of giving your players what they want even if it's not the specifics they would have told you. Again though, you'll need to know your players. The ending doesn't necessarily always need to be completely satisfying from a writing and character perspective. It needs to make sense, be shaped by your players through their actions, and bring satisfaction to your players. What would satisfy the player's character and what would satisfy the player do not necessarily align. Some character's players even create characters that they want to be unsatisfied and lead to tragic results.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Dungeon Master: Multi-Visit Dungeon

Dungeon design can be a tricky thing. There about as many ways to design a dungeon as there are Dungeon Masters to design them. Still, there are general goals and ideas a Dungeon Master has when creating a dungeon that help guide the design. One is between a single visit and multi-visit dungeon. It makes sense that a dungeon meant to be visited once would be different than a dungeon that is meant to be probed multiple times and explored over time. As a result, I hope to write a little bit about multi-visit dungeons.

Unintentionally Switching

Over the course of a game, it's not out of the realm of possibility that things won't go to plan. A group that is particularly lucky, clever, or both can go through dungeon meant to be explored over multiple visits. Likewise, a dungeon meant for a single visit can be surprisingly difficult to overcome and force a strategic retreat. This time I'll be focusing on the design step of the dungeon. However, similar considerations can be used to turn a dungeon originally meant to be explored in one go into a multi-visit dungeon. In this case, there's not too much that can be done outside of adding secret passages, and adding new residents as well as a purpose to return. Still, similar ideas can be applied. What we are doing in this case is building on top of an existing dungeon to form a multi-visit dungeon after the fact. This new dungeon can then be examined and treated in much the same way as a multi-visit dungeon. It just wasn't the intention from the start.

Types of Obstacles

Typically the obstacles in a dungeon are creatures or something else. The key difference here is that creatures can reorganize after taking casualties as well as call for backup. A 354 year old trap, however, often stays disabled until a character re-activates it. This isn't a cut and dry rule though. Some traps can be disabled for some amount of time after being overcome. Typically, however, once it's overcome it can be overcome in the same way again. This means that if players remember what the dungeon was like, it'll be easier to go further into it next time. From a design perspective it's probably better to think about it as obstacles that will change (creatures, maybe a particularly complex trap) and those that will remain the same (spike pit, dart trap, riddle door, etc.).

Infinitely Impenetrable

When dealing with creatures or other kinds of obstacles that reset, you want to avoid getting into a situation where your players are forever stuck at the same level of the dungeon. Even if it's not really infinitely, each foray into the dungeon should feel a bit different. It could be because different creatures moved in (I seem to recall this being quite common), or because the distribution of forces was changed in response to the previous attack. The most obvious way to do this is by letting your players get through the first part of the dungeon more easily. Above all, you don't want a copy past of the previous layout but with some of the inner group redistributed. This makes going through the same area a chore.

Rough Estimate

I tend to like to do estimates of how long it would take to go through the dungeon and how far they'd go through. These estimates are useful so I know roughly how long it'll take and to try to keep a dungeon from overstaying its welcome. However, it shouldn't be an actual outline of how things should go. I use it merely as an estimation tool.Things will probably go different than you expected but you should still know what you were hoping to achieve when designing a dungeon.

Some Events

As they leave and return, some things could happen. In my notes I tend to call these things events. They can be a good way to mix things up between visits. New residents, or even the evidence of an adventurer group that got in way over their heads can help add some life and colour to an adventure (and guilt if they died due to traps the party reset before leaving). It tends to be a bit difficult for me to come up with these on the fly so I prefer to brainstorm a head of time. Then I can choose as few or as many as I want to use later.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Dungeon Master: Magic Item Drawbacks Examples

Magic items are an incredibly iconic part of a campaign. Over the course of one, each player character will typically have at least one item that is associated to them. While it isn't always the most useful of items, it can be hard not to think of the item when thinking about the character even years after the end of a campaign. In my experience, one of the things that makes an item memorable is an element of risk. It could be a risk to try and get a more powerful outcome to happen, or it could be the threat of a bad outcome. I'll begin by looking at some properties that can be added to a magic item for this particular purpose.

When Does the Drawback Happen?

In the games I took part in a player typically has to perform a roll similar to a death saving throw when making use of an item like this. If they beat it (roll 10 or higher), everything is fine. If they don't, a drawback occurs. We nicknamed this a “drawback roll” and it only applied to specific magic items. You can of course scale the difficulty as you'd like. Some items may have a very rare chance as low as 1 out of 20. You can also make it specific to the item, however it can get hard to remember a whole slew of different DCs. However, such a problem is easily avoided if magic items are carefully handed out. You can also include a skill or attribute modifier on the roll as you would any other check. The circumstance can also modify things, especially if the item is sentient. The short version is there are a lot of ways to have fun with this idea and I saw these rolls played with a lot.

Format For Properties

I've been trying to mostly keep things system neutral and use D&D 5th edition for examples. For this reason, the first paragraph after italics will be an explanation of the intended draw back. After that, I'll provide a sample implementation for D&D 5th edition. In the case of multiple version, I provide alternates below. Naturally, damage can be adjusted. I won't bother to list those as alternates.


Your arrow quickly leaves your bow and hits the target square in the chest. He falls over with a twist and lies motionless on the ground. You feel slightly weaker compared to before your shot.

The idea behind this item is that there is a chance to take some damage after an attack. The idea is that there is added risk with such an item. It's usually intended for a weapon, but also works well with a staff or other magical item. The damage taken typically should reflect the strength of the effect caused by the item.

Example Implementation: After an option is chosen, perform the drawback roll. In the event of a failure, roll 1d6 multiplied by the strength of the effect. The damage can be high to make it risky to use or low to allow repeated use by high level characters but also careful use by low-level characters.

Alt 1: Instead of taking damage, the user gains a level of exhaustion.

Alt 2: Instead of taking damage, the user can only take an action or move action until the end of their next turn (can be moved to 1d4 instead for more punishment).


Your arcane power is focused through your staff. Released in the form of a pitch black sphere, it flies ahead and explodes on impact. Shadows, acting like black fire, engulf all that are caught in it's blast.

The idea behind this trait is linked to a magic item I saw in use. The item was a staff that allowed the necromancer that was attuned to it to channel any spell through it. Doing so allowed them to change the type of damage dealt by the spell to necrotic. It also let them try to enhance its power.

Example Implementation: The object has 10 charges. 1-5 can be used at a time. Each charge adds 1d6 damage to the spell channeled through the staff. After an option is chosen, perform the drawback roll. In the event of a failure, the user of the object takes damage equal to the bonus damage.


As you try to activate its ability, the snakes engraved on the item seem to come alive!

The idea behind this item is that using it has a chance of failure. This unreliability makes using it a risk. Here is also an alternate version where later actions take a penalty. In game wise it can also be described as a defect in the item itself.

Example Implementation: When attempting to use the object, perform a drawback roll. In the event of a failure, nothing happens.

Alt 1: Enemies have advantage against the user and the character using the item has disadvantage on saves.

Alt 2: The user has disadvantage on checks/attacks and enemies have advantage on saves imposed by the character using the item until the end of their next turn.


The item erupts in brilliant bright light and warmth. You still see glowing white even after the warmth subsides.

This drawback was originally belonging to a sword that could erupt in bright like, sort of like a sun blade. However, it also blinded people for some length of time. The user and their allies were also not immune to this effect. There was also another sword but instead it blinded the user when trying to use it's power.

You will need to set a DC for enemies to resist the effect. Typically the user did a drawback roll instead in order to give them a better chance to resist. Characters who knew it was coming could try to cover their eyes.It's up to you if you want the item to affect party members or if the wielder has some level of control as long as they succeeded on their drawback roll. 

Example Implementation: When attempting to use the the property, perform a drawback roll. In the event of a failure, you are blinded until the end of your next turn.

Alt 1: When attempting to use a property, perform a drawback roll. In the event of a failure, you are blinded for 1d4 turns.


All sound, ins a single moment, fades away.

The point of this drawback was to decrease perception and increase chances of walking into ambushed but also served to force the user to depend on their party members.

Example Implementation: When attempting to use a property, perform a drawback roll. In the event of a failure, you are deafened for one hour. Think of interesting ways this would effect role-playing. 

Alt 1: You are deafened for 1 turn instead.  


A single moment later, you can no longer hear your friend speaking. The chirping of crickets can still be heard in the distance.

Legend has it that it belonged to a thief and a mage hunter over the years. Who it was originally meant for is a mystery lost to time.

Having an easy way to cast silence is a useful thing for anyone who wants to sneak around or fight wizards. However, it can also be a downside to your own in close quarters. This item originally had 2 properties. One was to use silence as normal, or a slightly modified version of the silence spell. The other had a chance to activate it unintentionally as well. This works best on a player who has a conscience and feels bad for making their party spellcasters suffer. Also if they cast spells. The other time I saw it was on a magic staff. Made things rather tough.

Example Implementation: When attempting to use a property, perform a drawback roll. In the event of a failure, silence is cast centred on the item until the end of your next turn.

Shadow Realm

You feel a cold chill run down your spine as the world fades away. Darkness surrounds you from every direction.

The intention of this item was shadow magic. The drawback could also be an advantage in certain situations and the player used it to survive blasts that otherwise would have killed them. In this case, they could never use the property directly.

Example Implementation: When attempting to use the the property, perform a drawback roll. In the event of a failure, they are trapped in a shadow realm until the end of their next turn (similar to a forced ethereal form).