Sunday, 27 May 2018

Dungeon Master: Unique Skills

Whether it's a player character or an NPC, people seek out ways to make their characters different. And from different classes, equipment, skills, personalities, and many more, we have many tools to do so in tabletop role-playing games. However, I want to add one more to the mix called “adding a signature skill”, and I hope someone out there finds it useful.

Unique Spell

The origin of this technique was from a campaign I was a part of where all of the players were some flavour of spellcasters. Each character got a small twist to one spell 3 times in a period. I'm fairly sure it recharged after a long rest. One example was that they could use the shield spell on someone else during their reaction. Spells are often the same no matter who casts them. The hope here was to change things a little a bit and by doing so make each character more unique in combat as well. Another character had their ice spells enhanced with non-damage related improvements such as taking away movement or being able to seal doors.

Why Bother?

These small kinds of changes can go a long way to help distinguish characters. We have other tools, as I mentioned earlier, but it's nice having another one. Sometimes you want to play the same class, but also want them to be their own character. It's that personal touch that helps. It's not in a rulebook, and the odds running into someone with the exact same character decrease drastically. Adding some new options can also be a lot of fun.

Adding a Signature Skill

The idea here is simple. Each character gets one signature skill, which is similar to the spell I mentioned earlier. Where it differs is that it doesn't need to be a spell. It can be some other unique skill not related at all with magic. In fact, it probably won't be if a character has no talent with magic. It's worth pointing out to magic based characters that it doesn't need to be based on their spells though. They can often get so caught with spells that they miss this option. It's an important distinction. The point is to help differentiate the character and make them even more unique. It could be a utility skill, it could be non-magic related, it could be related to their knowledge of magic, or whatever else they want and you are willing to allow.

Still, I find placing a restriction on how often it can be used in the session helps prevent balance issues due to this addition. It's an extra bit of spice, so don't go eating the whole bag was the ideas. It also helps prevent this from turning into getting a feat for free. There is nothing wrong with giving players a free feat or having them come up with their own. I've seen it work wonders. However, what makes this different is the limitation placed on it. This tends to cut down on potential problems, and let's you be fairly significant. I also find that generally avoiding combat enhancements works well, though some non-damage related ones have worked fine in the past. Some feats help with combat so you can come up with some custom feats instead. If you want to add combat enhancements, I'd advise giving two unique skills just so that non-combat is also being addressed and so that everyone gets a boost. Balance in combat isn't the most important thing in the world but I'd advise a light touch since we are additional potential balance issues on top of what the rules already contain. Alternatively I've also seen this used to help a class that everyone at the table felt was wanting.

Completely Unique?

One thing to think about is if you want to make the skill completely unique. Should there be one NPC with a similar skill? Should an entire school of mages have it? Or should no other character have the skill? The answer to this question varies a lot so it should be up to the Dungeon Master. However, I do find that there is an upside to being a bit strict and not allowing repeats in a group, not even in new campaigns. That way it forces them to come up with a new concept for a new character instead of falling into an old character. This, of course, requires players who want to play new characters and will be grateful for catching them before they accidentally remade the same character without thinking. There are also story arguments for giving everyone a unique skill that marks them as somehow special and others. They work well for their own reasons, but these reasons aren't typically related to helping make the characters more unique.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Dungeons & Dragons: Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes Review

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

  • Lots more of full colour art. I've been saying this throughout this iteration of D&D, but it's been consistently good and plentiful. My favourite illustrations continue to be the more photorealistic style environment shots.
  • New monsters are provided for Dungeon Masters. About half the book is basically a Monster Manual. Many of them are generally useful demons, devils, humanoids and undead.
  • New player options are provided here in the form of subraces, and one new race. These get a fair amount of detail. Treat these as a bonus though as this is a rather Dungeon Master focused book.
  • Well written exploration of the Blood War (yes please, one of my favourites), gith, dwarves, gnomes and elves.
  • The limited edition covers have looked consistently good and the option being present is nice. I also like this limited edition cover.
  • At 256 pages, this book is about 60 pages fatter than Xanathar's Guide to Everything, which I felt was getting too light. Great to see the page count go back to roughly 250.
  • A nice breakdown of monster by environment, and challenge rating. Not too impressive page count wise but so very useful.

Could Go Either Way:
  • Topics such as the Blood War, gnomes and elves are well covered in previous editions. This reduces the value of the book for those that already read about these things in previous editions and aren't curious about the changes made for this one.
  • A more even distribution of challenge ratings compared to the Monster Manual. About 2/3rds of the creatures are challenge rating 7 or higher.
  • My copy had quality issues. Both of my books had improperly cut pages that were folded into the book. Now, this doesn't make the book impossible to use but I'd recommend taking a careful look when picking the book out at the store. If you see a section with folded corners, there's a good chance it'll have this issue. Look below for pictures.
  • The demon princes are taken from the existing adventure Out of the Abyss. If you don't have that adventure you won't notice but for those of us who do, the usable page count of the book decreases.
  • No PDF*

* Denotes nitpicking.

Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes Covers
The standard cover (left) and deluxe cover (right). Not bad, right? I prefer the deluxe one myself.


It's been rather quiet this year on the D&D book front, however the silence has now been broken. Having a full release on May 29, Mordenkeinen's Tome of Foes bring new subrace player options (which also nicely double as things we DMs can use), monsters, and more to help build worlds and adventures. The Blood War is back. Gnomes and elves are getting attention. If I had to describe it in one sentence I'd say it's a rather good book that's a sprinkle of Player's Handbook and mainly Monster Manual, which should have been expected from a name like Mordenkeinen's Tome of Foes. And with that description, let's jump into the meat of the book.

New Player Options

The new player options here are in the form of new subraces (8 tiefling, 3 elf, 1 dwarf, and 1 gnome) for established races and a new race for gith. They also come with flaws, bonds, and other roleplay goodies. As always, this also can double to aid the creative Dungeon Master in creating NPCs. If you were looking for a lot of mechanics and crunch to help create new characters, there is some but you might be left wanting more. The majority of this first section is instead chronicles what these groups look like from a society and history stand point. Naturally this is interesting to both Dungeon Masters and player. It also includes ideal, flaw, bond, and some organization tables such as what a traveling group of dwarves looks like. It's a good read, but as always with this sort of thing it may be lost on you if you are running your own campaign where dwarves, tieflings and elves are drastically different from their published versions.

New Monsters

First thing's first, there are some repeats from previous books. In particular the demon lords from Out of the Abyss return along with their art. If you missed that book you'll probably like it, but if you have Out of the Abyss this does reduce the useful page count a bit.

The monsters themselves span a very impressive range. Earlier books, such as the Monster Manual, tended to have a clustering of low level monsters and then a sprinkling of higher level ones. This book, on the other hand, has a more even distribution of creatures. Roughly 2/3rd of the creatures are challenge rating 7 or higher. The basic rules, SRD and Monster Manual provide a good basis for low level campaigns so an emphasis on higher challenge ratings is what I think we needed.

Quite a few of the monsters here have a gimmick. Chokers can suffocate players on a critical, for example. Again, this is what I like to see since it prevents combat from devolving into hitting a hit point pinata and instead allows for interesting things to happen. And outside of combat, there are many monsters that just beg for an adventure to be written about them. I'm glad to see the boneclaw back, and vampiric mist seems like a fun one to run too. Since the Blood War is a focus of this book, there are a lot of fiends. There's also a lot of humanoids as you'd expect with chapters on drow, gnomes, and dwarves. There's also a smaller number of undead, constructs, monstrosities and aberrations. If you are planning to run a devil centred campaign, this will come in very handy. Humanoids, demons and devils are very common in campaigns so I wouldn't call these creatures niche either. High level creatures are less general purpose but challenge rating 20 creatures and higher tend to be unique.

Demonic Boons

Since we have demons, and cults, there are boons provided here. These boons are granted to cultists from their patron and enhance them in some way. I really like these. It allows for easy customization of cultists, and makes a whole lot of sense. They provide stat bonuses, and special abilities to cult member and cult leaders. And of course, you can use them as templates for making your own. Or disregard them because you have a better idea for one of your cults.

World Building

There is quite a bit of emphasis on world building here. From the Blood War to the gith, to the Raven Queen, many different aspects get focus. A common theme through this book is that the knowledge presented isn't the be all and end all. For the Raven Queen, for example, is mysterious and the text provided details doesn't sound definitive. This is really nice from a Dungeon Master perspective because it gives us leeway and leaves a lot in our hands. I like this aspect of this edition in general.

It's interesting and well written. The Blood War in particular was a bit overdue for this edition so it's really nice to see it here. Many a campaign had the Blood War as a backdrop including one of my earliest. The other sections (gith, dwarves, deurgar, halflings, gnomes, and elves) are also well written. I may be a bit biased towards the Blood War though. There are also a good number of tables to help you customize these groups. This is very useful and I love this addition. The only big problems I could foresee here is people not liking some of what is done in this edition with things they already knew from previous editions, and that it would be familiar to D&D veterans. If D&D 5th edition is your first, I think you'll have a pleasant read. 

Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes Gith
Gith image from Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes. Rather typical example of the art style in this book.

The Art

If you've bought any books in this edition you know what to expect. Art is plentiful and maintains the same style found in the previous books. Typically this means stylized depictions of monsters, people and places with the occasional water painting like location. The water painting style was always my favourite of the bunch and the rest didn't appeal to me in the same way. I've also included the cover images for both. I think I prefer the deluxe version again. Unfortunately, the art for the demon lords is reused from Out of the Abyss. It's not bad, and the two page spread of Zuggtmoy still looks great to me, but it would have been nice to have some new art too. In the original Monster Manual I really liked the depiction of the wraith. In this one, image I've included below was one of my favourites. This style is an outlier in this book though. Other monsters deserving a shoutout are the boneclaw, astral dreadnought, and leviathan. 

Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes Tower
One of my favourite images from this book. The environment art continues to be great. More of this please.

Book Build Quality

The overall design of the book, the quality of the pages and the cover are all things we've seen before. Put this book on a shelf with another book from this edition and they'll look like they belong together. However, both of my books had some quality issues. It looks like the pages were improperly cut and folded into the book. It's easier if you just look at my example picture. This occurred on both my deluxe and standard edition so I'd suggest that if you are picking up the book from your local game store, take a quick peek for any folded corners. 

Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes Defect
Keep an eye out for this when picking out your book. The pages weren't properly cut.


Nothing new here. MSRP is $50 USD for both the standard and limited editions, and you can get it for cheaper by looking online and going used. If the quality issues I mentioned above concern you, the extra cost of getting the book in person may very well be worth it.

What I felt was Missing

This is a solid book. However, I would have liked to see more maps and lairs in the same vein as Volo's Guide to Monsters. This book is heavier on the crunch for new monsters, but maps are always a big help for Dungeon Masters looking to run them. We also have a lot of monsters included here and I would have liked to see some encounter groups included in Dragon+ and linked on book page on the Wizards of the Coast website. We got the stats for some archdevils but it would have been nice to have all of the archdevils defined here as well. As it is now, you read through the section on the current archdevils, and are disappointed when your favourite doesn't have stats.

Free Stuff

These later books have not been as consistent for free stuff as some of the older ones. Indeed, this book doesn't lend itself to it as well as the adventurers where the introduction section like Death House could be given out for free. Actually, I think we got more stuff in the form of free maps from previous adventures leading up to this edition (I'd recommend taking a look for those here). The adventure there, The Risen Mists, is also of interest in that edition. It's a bit odd that the free things don't directly advertise the new book, but I guess that what keeps people playing helps in the long run. You can see some art from the book. That's mostly it. So unfortunately, not much free material for this particular book.


Overall, I enjoyed this book but by far enjoyed the Blood War, githzerai and githyanki, and monster sections the most. This easily takes up more than half the book, so I'd say it's an interesting book for Dungeon Masters wanting to throw more creatures at their players. It's well written, and the subject matter is widely applicable to campaigns thanks to the focus on common creatures like devils, demons, undead, and humanoids. These creatures are also more spread out than previous books, and many monsters are meant to challenge higher level characters. It'll be a harder sell to veteran players who already know these topics, but the second half being a mini Monster Manual will still make it tempting. Just keep an eye out for the defect I mentioned. 

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Monster Ideas: Bandits

I'd be very surprised if someone went their role-playing career without encountering a bandit. These guys are everywhere. And not only are they an easy source of low level baddies in campaigns, they say something about the location they are found in. From brazen daylight robberies or late night pick-pocketing, there are a lot of schemes these guys can be used for. And it is in the hopes of arriving at more ideas to use these baddies that we'll explore them today.


A group of bandits should have some sort of money making scheme. Pick-pocketing the rich, attacking caravans, and extorting high ranked people for favours are all examples of things that they can be trying to do. However, this element is very important for your group of bandits as it will determine their motivations and often their skill level. A group of assassins in a big city will not be comparable to a bunch of highway robbers far from civilization. It will also affect how exactly the party will be hindered by them and in what manner. Change the scheme, and you change the entire situation with these guys.


A few thoughts about the organization of the bandits is a good idea. Is it a centralized structure with some outside groups responding and doing as they are told? Is this a small operation so there is only one level of management close to where the action is? Or is it a large, decentralized organization that occasionally gets some orders but has a lot of leeway as well. What this does, besides helping us understand how the group might act and whether they can get help from another office, is let us think about the heads. How many levels of organization are there? Is there the regular bandits at the bottom and one level 2 leader above them? Or is there an evil level 18 wizard leading a level of level 10 enforcers who have another 3 levels below them? With that kind of organization, they could get into conspiracy theory territory.

Good Henchmen

Of course, bandits could be convenient henchmen for something bigger. They could be a front set up by a noble to take care of business that can't be dealt with legally. The operation could've been taken over by mindflayers or vampires. Do they know? Maybe yes, maybe no. Regardless there is a layering of threats in this case. Making sure these layers make sense together is important. Also, the bandits could eventually become the henchmen of your characters. Perhaps they are competing with your players to steal something.


Oh, it turns out they aren't bandits. They are an invading army looting or something. Kind of a copout? Yeah, but it can work. The important part here is that banditry is an occupation, and people can use it as a front for something else.

Fighting Style

How do these bandits fight? By the D&D 5th edition book, they'll have a scimitar and a crossbow. However, we can play with this a lot and in fact likely will need to. If this is all in a city, you wouldn't expect your bandits to walk past guards wearing weapons in a slum. Instead they might be wearing concealed knives. Likewise, they don't all have to be the same bandits. One might use a whip and short sword, one might hand back with a bow and help their wizard, and another two might try to hold the enemy in a desirable location with shields and swords. Perhaps they don't actually fight. Instead they lay quick ambushes, attack, and then disappear. Or maybe they are experienced and rely on a combination of martial prowess and magic. Not every group in the bandit organization needs to have the same outfit either. In general, I'd recommend treating the entries in the Monster Manual for bandits as a starting point.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Monster Ideas: Humanoids

Most NPCs in a campaign tend to be some kind of humanoid. Whether human, elf, drwarf, or any other humanoid, they are used to help flesh out the world. The problem though is that they are incredibly versatile. A human can be anything. In contrast wights, vampires and liches have their own applications that make them special. These imply and inspire stories due to their uniqueness. Humanoids are more difficult in this way precisely because they can be anything. And it is for that reason that I hope to explore this topic. I also know they aren't very monstrous, but hey, we Dungeon Masters throw them at our players so why not?

Look Somewhere Else

The first way to address this situation is to not rely on the humanoid background for your story. Instead, it needs to come about through other means. If you run enough liches, you'll run into a situation where you don't know what else you can do with a lich. However, that doesn't mean you will never run a lich again. Instead the focus turns to the character of the individual lich in question. What are they after? Who do they hate? Why are they doing what they are doing? Here the difference is between what you can do with just any lich, and what a particular lich might do. Simply put, you need to come from the character first. I find myself in this situation very quickly when needing to make humanoids.

Be Distinct

Elves, drwarves, humans and other humanoids tend to have something that makes them distinct from each other. Further, even in the core rules, there are further divisions in terms of different types of dwarves and elves. This is immensely helpful for me. Instead of thinking of a human, think about what a resident of Baldur's Gate would do or say. If the type you've chosen is too general, go more specific.

Let's Change Things Up

If the nature isn't inspiring, you can change the nature. Perhaps your humanoid baddies are the reject descendants of gods trying to prevent your players from achieving divinity. The key here is to go more specific. Human might be very general, but godkind may not be. In the core books there are many kinds of humans and likewise you can do the same. It's not just a war between humans on one side and humans on the other. It's two distinct cultures with their own values. As a result, they are no longer just humans. What we are doing is making the type of humanoid new by changing them. Of course, the extent we'll need to do this to help inspire ourselves will vary depending on the Dungeon Master in question. This is a bit different from the above option but very similar. There, we went more specific to find something to inspire us. Here, we make up something new. It will be more specific, but it doesn't exist yet. Often this takes the form of a subversion. Good orcs, good succubi, etc.

Social Structure

One humanoid baddie by themselves often isn't enough to challenge a party. Instead you throw 4, 10, or 40 at them. And when you have that many humanoids, they'll have a social structure of some kind. These interactions and structures are some of what makes humanoids so fun. They aren't undead skeletons who are probably the world's worst standup comedians. You also don't want them to be the same as undead skeletons. Naturally personal motivations also come along with social stuctures. Thinking about both social structures and character motivations is a path to many an interesting adventure. Even a necromancer might have apprentices with their own relationships with each others and others outside the organization.