Sunday, 29 July 2018

Dungeon Master: Unexpected Magic Items

Players often have items in mind for their characters. And why shouldn't they? It really should come as no surprise that the sword and board fighter in a vampire centred campaign dreams of having a sun blade. However, often times the most memorable and loved items are the ones they never expected to have. The trouble is that many items can end up getting sold off, so how do we make items that players want to keep that they never wanted?

Selling Off Items is Fine

Having the party sell off excess magic items is fine. It makes sense, particularly in a high magic setting, that not all of the items they get from their enemies would find a use in the party. It also gives you a nice way out in case you miss. The worst case scenario is have a quest to sell it off and another small shortfall of money.

Why Bother?

Sometimes players like surprises. Finding a really useful magic item they never considered is one of those times. There are a lot of cool magic items already in D&D so I've typically found that new players are often impressed by some of the classics. Veteran players have already seen those items so you need something else to get their sense of wonder going. There are also holes in the list of magic items that you don't always realize until running a campaign. You may want specific items to resist and kill illithid in your campaign, and it makes sense that a group whose goal is to hunt illithids will be trying to develop countermeasures.

Look At Things They Miss

There are a few things that I find my players often don't notice when thinking about useful items. One of which has to do with sight. If you are a human, being able to see at night can be a massive advantage if combat often happens at night. It may also be useful to be able to reveal undead with a magic lantern. Alternatively, building on the existing abilities of a class in ways the player didn't expect often goes over well. I remember one campaign where the fighter got a battleaxe that allowed them to use a modified version of the blink spell. Seeing them dark around the battlefield hitting people was something special and it became one of that player's favourite items. 

Non Combat Uses

Players often think about items that give them an edge in combat. Combat is a tense moment where an extra +1 could have made a difference. However, there is more to magic items than that. This is especially true if you have new players that don't have experience with items like bags of holding. Such an item changes inventory management and makes things more convenient for players. However, it also changes the game. The players are no longer concerned about being attacked while they lead a cart of equipment through dangerous terrain. They no longer have to protect the horse pulling the cart, or devote players to push the cart if it died during an attack. 

Some items have minor effects or only good for role-play. In one campaign I ran a ring was given to the party. It was a plane band, but it had the continual flame spell cast upon it. It diminished the need for lanterns, left the hand open for use since it could be worn, and when the party wizard learned the spell they made similar items for the rest of the party. Characters could easily stash it away and pull it out later when they needed light, which was very useful since they were often traveling at night. Role-play are similar but are even more minor in effect. Clothes that don't dirty or a candle that never runs out are handy, but they don't drastically change the game. The ring I mentioned earlier was used similarly to how a never ending candle could be used: to read at night. However, it was a favourite item since it saved on minor costs and was commonly used by the character since they would read or write often. They were a wizard after all.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Dungeon Master: Unique Magic Items

There are many reasons to put unique magic items in the hands of your players. They range from rewarding players for accomplishing great deeds, to necessity in a campaign featuring sparse use of magic items. However, regardless of the reason, the end goal is the same: to create special items that your players will remember for years to come and are uniquely their own. Though I am far from a master of this art, I hope to share some of my experience in my pursuit and in the process hope to help someone out there. And of course get inspiration for a few new items, but that doesn't sound as noble.

Special Touch

One little well thought out thing that pulls everything together can work wonders. Of course, we can also go bigger and add a massive benefit. However, I generally feel a collection of abilities that work cohesively are the most effective. Of course, it isn't a general rule and I'm sure you can find cases where two unrelated abilities make sense by expanding the magic item's utility. It can also help expand the item's story.

Common Magic Item Creation Types

Combination of Magic Items

Often in a campaign where magic items are rare, you'll end up with a magic item that is really an amalgamation of multiple magic items together. A flame tongue might also reflect a spell back to the caster if the save is good enough and also give advantage against spells. This is a reasonable thing to do, but it can be a bit uninspired. However, if the combination is chosen intelligently it can lead to amazing items. A common one I've seen is a mash between 2 different staffs to give the user access to more spells. Cool, and allows for more choices for the wizard using it, but I would argue this is an example of an uninspired item. To fix this add a special touch. A flame tongue mashed with staff of fire is a bit more inspired though it has the same origins.

Magic Item Reskin

My player likes the ability of the arrow catching shield, but doesn't like the shield part. I could give them gloves of arrow snaring, but I could also make a greatsword with the perks of the arrow catching shield, but not too much of it to make the new item just better than the gloves (bigger damage die and same AC increase, oh yeah). This is a very common technique. Like the flame tongue ability but are a bow character? You now have a bow with similar abilities. Maybe the Dungeon Master will lower the damage a little, but it will still mostly be a reskinned flame tongue. Like combining items, this can be uninspired and the reskin not different enough to make it really unique or memorable. Again, try to add a little special touch to make it a bit more unique. Examples I've seen done is to give the bow charges and let it used burning hands and fireball (similar to a flame tongue mixed with a staff of fire), immunity to fire damage and the ability to regain 1d6 health when taking fire damage, and the ability to teleport to sources of fire within 30 feet.

Look At Spells

We have a wealth of spells included with each version of D&D. Even 5th edition, being a relative baby compared to its older brothers, has a fairly wide selection of spells for us to choose from. These spells can be combined or tweaked in interesting ways to create cool magical items. For example, in one of my games I had a flame tongue. However, it wasn't just a flame tongue. It was a +3 flame tongue with the ability to use blink once per day without an action cost and to use a bonus action to teleport 10 feet. Jumping into a group of enemies and jumping all over the place using this magic item was something special. I do find, however, that the magic items best received aren't just mirroring a spell. The spell is somehow changed to better reflect its new purpose. With this item, it was the intent of the Dungeon Master to let me use both the teleport and the blink ability at the same time, so it needed to be tweaked.

Break A Rule

We have a wide range of rules. However, I would say that a good amount of magic items at their core are about bending, modifying or breaking a rule to the player's advantage. You roll a d20 + strength + proficiency to see if you hit? Well, my +2 sword modifies it in my favour further. Fall damage is 1d6 per 10 feet? Well, maybe my magic item lets me ignore this rule. Opportunity attacks are also a good candidate. Once we identify what rule we want to break or bend, we also need to identify how. We could just let a player fall as far as they want and not take damage. We could also give them a casting of feather fall once per day.

What Do We Want To Do?

Another way to go about this is to come up with a concept for something cool you want to do. One thing a player might say is, “I want to be able to touch people and do fire damage as well as catch swords”. Well, if we want to give them what they want, we can make gloves that make a punch or touch do 1d4 + strength modifier fire damage instead of the normal one. Also, if they are hit with a melee or ranged weapon attack they can use their reaction to reduce the damage by 1d10 + dex modifier if they have a free hand. This is similar to an existing item (gloves of missile snaring), but also has its own new touch that allows it to do what our player wanted. In this interpretation, the enemy can pry or slide the sword out of your hand afterwards. You could also let the player grab the weapon if the damage is reduced to 0 damage, but this will make it significantly strong. I typically recommend looking at existing items to see if we can modify them to do what we want. This is both for balance, as it makes it easier for new Dungeon Masters to make balanced items, and it is a surprisingly effective way to get the creative juices flowing. Of course, we can still horribly break items in this way but I think often the risks are lower. It also can narrow things down since we don't have to wrestle with how we are going to do the sword catching part of the item. Steal the arrow catching part from an existing item and also apply it to melee weapons. A player may want to bring an existing item from some other medium to life instead of having a concept. This is fine, but I also typically tell my player to do something slightly different to make it their own.

Add Drawbacks

Not all magic items need drawbacks, but they can make an item more interesting. It also lets you impose a cost for suing an incredibly powerful item. Extreme care is needed here. Be too punishing, and you've created a magic item that might as well not exist: it will never be used in your campaign. Common methods are to allow health to be traded for damage output, though the damage output often needs to be higher in order to justify the costs. For some reason I've seen hit point cost resulting in 2 hit points of damage to the enemy done most often. They can also be role-play related draw backs. If the local church recognize a soul stealer sword, they may have some unkind words with you. Again, exercise care here. Often having charge limits on an item is enough to prevent overuse but in some cases, such as items with infinite uses, a different cost may be required.

All Of The Above

When we make an item, it could purely be one of the above sections. More often though, I find it's a mix of multiple ways. For example a player may want to do something, and there is already a spell that's close to what they want that we could add to an item. We may add an extra perk for them because it makes sense in context, and add something that breaks a rule. The point of the above wasn't to give exact answers on how to make a magic item, but instead some of the most common ways I've seen to make magic items. There is always room for other techniques and strikes of inspiration. 

Monday, 16 July 2018

Dungeon Master: Magic Items as Stories

Magic items are capable of a great many things. They can give players and villains alike a needed boost in strength. They can be the source of entire adventures, or trinkets that the players don't think twice about. However, they tend to get stories associated with them over the course of adventures. Even otherwise seemingly useless items may gain life for their utility, or be remembered fondly for the one time they proved to be useful. At this point they become more than just a magic item, they become a story. And it is this topic I hope to explore today.

More Than A +1 Longsword

An easy first step is to avoid giving +1 weapons. Make the item something special by adding a couple of details. Even something small like a few notched on the cross guard can lead to an interesting story when someone they run into finds it familiar. Now, I'd usually recommend something bigger but subtly can be surprisingly effective too.

In terms of function, I've found going big is most memorable. Something that changes the game. The real potential for story telling with these items isn't that it's just a sword like my old one but does more damage. It's that it opened up new options previously beyond the player's reach. The new options that open up allow for new stories to be told. However, you can do both aspects or one or the other. The great part about an item, even if it's just a +1 longsword in combat, is that it might open up role-play opportunities not otherwise possible. A +1 longsword in a world with almost no +1 longswords becomes something more. It will be coveted.

Let's Find Them!

There is always the classic story of trying to find an item. A whole campaign could revolve around finding an item. Whether that's because it's valuable to the players or the NPC that hired them is irrelevant: the item has value and they'll look for it. It takes care though, and players who are willing to go after such a goal.

However, I think that you can't rely on the item itself in this case to drive the whole campaign and story. Instead it's a catalyst for the players and forces who want it to perform actions. As such, the location where the item is and the path to getting to it is the real core of the story. Where and how an item is found, even one that wasn't sought, tells quite a lot about that item and can hint to a larger story. This may sound obvious but I've seen all too often that an item becomes all that is important in a campaign instead of a setup.


An item needs to be made by someone for some reason, and if the players aren't going to pawn it off at the nearest stand they'll need a purpose for it too. The purpose may not be foreseen, since it's up to the players to find creative methods to use items. However, if the players realize they are about to face a dangerous situation it isn't uncommon for them to look for ways to change the odds more in their favour. And a common method is through magic items. Scrolls, magic rings, world shattering devices, a sun blade in a vampire centred campaign, take your pick. What's great about these situations is that since the players are actively seeking these items out, it means they already have a purpose. Of course, the trouble with this method is that if the players always break to look for magic items and resources, a good portion of the tension will fly out the window. They can't always run into a situation perfectly prepared.

When it's on the other side of the DM screen I find that the items should help further the goal of the NPC in some way. If the NPC or villain is also chasing after the same item, they need to have a reason. Money is an easy one, but something more personal can often lead to better results. Potions to prevent aging, or the severed limb of a now crippled death knight who wants to regain his power. Those sorts of things.


Magic items can become part of the identity of a character. I think we can all remember a character we had that had a certain item that was closely associated with the character in question. Even if it's a published item like a sun blade, the moment it was used cleverly to kill 3 vampire spawn goes down in campaign history and leaves an impact. What it requires to become more in this case is a special moment and use for it. After all, a sun blade wouldn't have been nearly as fondly remembered in a campaign with no vampires, though it would still prove to be more useful than a regular old short sword. This also means that if a player character dies, their old magic items have a history attached to them. I've seen this occur both in cases where players reacquired items their old characters used to have (the campaign was set a thousand years after their previous ones), or where a new player joining a group received the items from their recently dead friend. The responsibility to do justice to their fallen comrade that the player role-played was something hard to describe. The reactions the players had to regaining their old items that now had a long storied history in the world was also hard to describe. The item became a character in the campaign itself, and it was like seeing an old friend NPC come back.

On top of that, some magic items can help tell the story of a character. It's not that uncommon to see a player character who is a disgraced noble or hero. Besides their magic sword, and memories of grander days, they have virtually nothing. You can also have the item grow in power over the course of the campaign as the player becomes more powerful and gains more control over their magic item. In this case, their starting weapon is closely linked to their personal story and has a history all their own. It's also a history you can let the player come up with. Whether it's the magic sword of their fallen friend that they will take to finish their work or whatever else, such a history is a great opportunity for telling stories and role-playing.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Dungeon Master: When to End a Session

Part of plotting a session is trying to figure out when you will call it a day. Eventually time runs out and we need to take a break. However, we also want the sessions to be fun and interesting. This is why it is so hard and so much of a skill. Balancing interesting things, and allowing players the chances to do what they wish within a defined time is tough. It's made even tougher by the nature of role-playing games: things often don't go as planned. Hopefully my thoughts on the matter will be useful and as always, I'm happy to hear other opinions.

Too Short Better Than Too Long

I am of the opinion that running too short is better than running too long in most cases. There are some exceptions that immediately come to mind, but the good thing about running short is that it means you still got through what you had planned. This usually means that there isn't much of a risk of a dead session where nothing happened. Some sessions will naturally be more interesting than others, but something happening is better than nothing. Of course, things could have gone off track but full of interesting events. My group also tends to have strictly timed sessions because of other commitments so I have this opinion by necessity.

What happens if we get through everything we planned? We could of course keep going and in many cases, I'd say this is the correct choice. We have the time so let's use it and continue in the story. The risk we run into is pacing and structure issues. Jumping into a half completed segments, combat encounters especially, can be rough. If we know that we only have 20 minutes left, it may be a good idea to break early instead of expecting everyone to jump right back into a half finished encounter. We could also end up ending on a low note after a tough and engaging combat encounter. In practice, I'm not really worried about this option. I find players often appreciate some breathing time after and to reflect on what happened. Still though, it should progress even if slowly. Some extra time at the end is also perfect if you plan to do a session postmortem.

When Is it Better To Run Longer?

There is also the option of running the session a bit longer sometimes. It will depend on who you have. It could be the only thing they have left for the day so whether they leave at 11pm or 11:20 doesn't matter as long as it ends reasonably close. In these cases, the right choice might be to just do the encounter and end on the high note. We'll run long but we can afford it. It is also sometimes a good idea to let your players know the session will run longer if you know ahead of time. This is especially true for the end of a campaign. If you normally have sessions that run 2-3 hours, it might be a good idea to run a longer 4 hour session and finish everything in one chunk. That way everything is fresh and rolls together well.

Why Are Breaks Bad?

It's been my experience that sessions tend to be scheduled weekly or by-weekly for groups. A week or two are perfect amounts of time to forget things and even with experienced groups, it can take a little bit of time to file the rust off and continue. I find it's somewhere in the 10-15 minute range. For this reason, starting a session in a half-completed combat encounter doesn't generally work the best. If you are using digital tools, it's less of a concern because the map will be untouched. Physical maps and miniatures need to be put away unless you don't need that table for 2 weeks. Sometimes it's unavoidable. I found my players prefer ending a bit early and starting the combat encounter next time. Some combat encounters can be very large and ornate, and in those it's more reasonable to find a logical spot to stop and commence. If the fight takes place in a tower where floors are breaking, stopping just as they fell to the final floor is better a less defined and memorable situation. And obviously the longer the time span between sessions, the worse it is.

Play Until Done

I've played in sessions where the target was about 2 hours, but everyone would stay until it was done. As a result things would often run long (3 hours, and once 4 hours) but each session felt like a complete experience. This worked great for this group, but not everyone has that kind of flexibility and out-of-game factors overrule the game in these cases. But man, is it satisfying to spend a most of a day playing a tabletop game.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Dungeon Master: What A Roll Says

Chance is an important part of a tabletop game and the dice is our tool for introducing it. That little object can determine success or failure for our actions. However, one thing I've wrestled with for as long as I've been gaming is what the roll actually says. In some cases it is rather straight forward. You swung your sword and you hit. In others, such as rolling to determine if someone is lying, things get weirder. As a player, you can even ignore your roll in this case. And it is with the intent to explore this idea that I write today.

Same Idea

Regardless, I find things work best when the meaning of a roll and its result is understood by all at the table. It makes things work far smoother. That way a player knows what the roll failure means and can role-play accordingly. Restarting a scene is something I feel should not happen during play. It takes away one of the great strengths of tabletop gaming: the commitment to choices and progression of story. It is also a major thing that marks it to be different than most video games, though some try to do this as well (though some fiddling with your appdata folders is still possible).

The Roll

So I roll my dice to see if the character was lying. Whether I succeed or fail, we are in a bit of an odd situation. If I failed, and they are in fact lying, do I think they are telling the truth? If they are telling the truth, do I think they are lying? This also adds an extra issue: if I do this consistently, the meta-game becomes obvious. If I failed I get the opposite result. If I rolled a 1 I know what is going on by process of elimination. I can obfuscate it and sometimes tell the truth and sometimes lie. I can also say they don't know when they fail and give the players an answer when they succeed. I'd say this last one is the most common and the simplest to implement. In general, it would be my suggestion for those things that involve recollection or mind related checks. Of course, introducing some exceptions into the mix can make for fun gameplay moments.

Ignoring Them

I don't mean ignoring them like when you don't bother to roll because a player role-played their character well and brought up an excellent point that doesn't need a charisma check. What I mean is that even if a player thinks a character isn't lying, they may still choose not to believe them. This is where things get a bit rough. Is a lie of omission a lie? Technically it is, and I'd argue that a roll should help you figure out that something is being hidden from you based on things you notice from the person who told the lie. However, even if that checks out, a player may still choose to ignore the result and not believe the character. This character broke their word thrice already. Why would I believe them again? Even if they don't lie, they are setting something up. There is a trick somewhere. These moments are great since it's the character the player created overpowering what the player knows or think they know. The roll gave them something, be it knowledge or a new position after climbing a wall. What they choose to do with what they gained is their business.

Did We Succeed?

Your character is trying to convince someone of something. Maybe they are lying, maybe they aren't. Still, how do you know if you succeeded? In this situation, it's hard to tell until the results come back to you. If a bad guy saw through your lie because they are better at reading your actions, or because they know something that directly contradicts what you said, you won't know until they spring their trap. Sometimes you will by a change in disposition. However, sometimes the result of the roll won't be known until farther along, because they'll use the chance to trap you. Again, it's fine and niche in application, but still important. Just make sure to note it for later use. It's easy to forget that your bad guy noticed if you don't.