Saturday, 14 October 2017

5e: Product spotlight - Inspiration Cards

Back when D&D 5e came out, the inspiration mechanic was a part of the game I became immediately enamoured with. I loved the idea of rewarding excellent roleplaying with a tangible in-game reward. I also started thinking about other ways a player might affect the plot, similar to other games plot points, fate points, etc.

In the end, I opted to introduce a system of inspiration cards to my game. The cards are broken up into two decks: one deck is equivalent to a point of inspiration, but many of the cards also have a unique special ability that can be used. The card can either be played to use that ability, or as regular inspiration. They are therefore slightly better than the basic inspiration cards that can also be drawn from the deck, in that they have more potential uses. The second deck has more powerful cards, called narrative control. Like the inspiration deck, the narrative control deck contains basic cards and unique cards which can also be spent in any of the basic ways if the player would prefer that to using the card's unique ability. The basic uses of narrative control are to declare a significant fact (subject to some DM oversight), to take an additional action, bonus action, or full movement allowance on the player's turn, or to grant every player advantage on a single roll they make before the beginning of your next turn.

These cards have been a great success in my personal campaign, so I felt it was worth sharing them. If you're interested in replacing the basic inspiration point mechanic in your own game, you can find my inspiration decks on DM's Guild. The default rules for using them are also presented below to help you make an informed decision about this rules option.

Rules Summary

The standard system of Inspiration Points is replaced with Inspiration Cards.

There are two decks of cards, Deck A and Deck B.

  • Deck A has cards that either grant powerful effects or allow you license to modify the story.
  • Deck B has cards with lesser but still significant effects.

Deck A Cards: Narrative Control

Deck A cards either grant a powerful in-game benefit or allow the player license to modify the story in some significant way.

Spending Deck A Cards:

  • Declare a significant fact: Add a detail or embellishment to, environment, object, lore, or NPC. The GM has right of veto, if it would contradict something already established or does not seem appropriate.
  • Heroic Effort: Take an additional action, bonus action, or movement on your turn.
  • Heroic Inspiration: Grant every PC, including yourself, advantage on a single roll of their choice - the advantage must be spent before the beginning of your next turn.
  • Use Card Special Ability: As described on the Deck A card.
  • Deck A cards may not be traded or given to other players.

Earning Deck A Cards:

  • You may hold only a single Deck A card in your hand at any time.
    • If you earn an additional Deck A card while holding one in your hand, you must choose if you want to keep the card in your hand before picking up. If so, you do not pick up. If you choose to pick up, discard the card in your hand.
  • The first time in any session someone earns inspiration, that player draws a card from Deck A instead of from Deck B.
    • If the player already has a Deck A card, they must choose whether to keep or discard the existing card as above. However, if they choose to keep their existing card they may pick up a card from Deck B instead.
  • Cards from Deck A may also be earned at the completion of story milestones.

Deck A Discards:

  • Spent or discarded Deck A cards go in a discard pile. The discard pile will be preserved between sessions. When the final Deck A card is spent or discarded, the discard pile will be shuffled and returned to play.

Deck B Cards: Inspiration

Deck B cards grant significant in-game benefits or can be spent in the usual ways for inspiration.

Spending Deck B Cards:

  • Gain Advantage: Have advantage for one attack roll, saving throw, or skill check.
  • Use Card Special Ability: As described on the Deck B card.
  • Unless the card you play specifically mentions an exception you may only spend a single inspiration card from Deck B on any given turn.
  • Deck B cards may not be traded but may be awarded to other players as inspiration. It isn't only the DM who is allowed to reward players for doing something cool or playing their character well (see Earning Deck B Cards). If you think a player deserves inspiration and the DM didn't hand one out, you can choose to give them a card from your hand.

Earning Deck B Cards

  • You can have a number of Deck B cards in your hand equal to your Proficiency Bonus.
    • As a reward, any player who agrees to keep a log of a session will be able to hold a number of Deck B cards equal to their Proficiency Bonus plus one for the duration of that session. They also start the session with one additional Deck B card. If they have cards in their hand in excess of their Proficiency Bonus then they must discard one card, unless they will also keep a log of the next session in which case they keep their entire hand (they may pick up their bonus Deck B card next session if they wish, but must discard one of the cards in their hand to do so as described below).
    • If you earn additional inspiration while holding a full hand, you must decide if you would like to discard a card from your hand in order to pick up, or if you would prefer to keep your current hand.
    • If a card you play allows you to draw cards exceeding your current inspiration limit, you must decide if you would like to discard cards from your hand in order to pick up the full amount, or if you will only draw cards up to your limit.
  • Earn inspiration for doing something awesome, epic, or entertaining. Only one may be earned at a time.
  • Earn inspiration for great roleplaying of your character, including traits, bonds, and flaws - especially if being themselves is not in the character's best interest but you play them truly. Only one may be earned at a time.
  • Whenever the DM declares you earn inspiration, you draw a card from Deck B (except the first time in a session, see Earning Deck A Cards). If a player declares you deserve inspiration, they give you one of the cards from their hand.

Deck B Discards:

Spent or discarded Deck B cards go in a discard pile. The discard pile will be preserved between sessions. When the final Deck B card is spent or discarded, the discard pile will be shuffled and returned to play.

Get inspiration cards for your own game here.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

5e: The best things about 4th Edition that never should have been rolled back.

As my Wednesday DM who chooses to run his games in 4th Edition can confirm, it's not exactly my favourite edition. Fortunately, he is an excellent DM running an interesting game in a fascinating setting, so I can set aside my overall dislike for the system and enjoy the experience.

Many of you will already know that the community reaction to 4th Edition was... divisive. Many criticised the game for feeling too like an MMO. Others felt that because each class was built on exactly the same framework in the name of balance the way the classes played ultimately felt too samey. The default assumption was extremely high levels of magic, resulting in magic item glut. The sheer amount of powers and magic items at each character's disposal can be confusing and lead to decision paralysis at the table. The combats, while offering a level of tactical nuance and satisfaction not seen in other editions past or since, can take hours to complete. 

Some players liked 4th Edition, but it's safe to say they were a minority. 4e's failure was a large factor in the runaway success of Pathfinder, marketed as an improved version of D&D 3.5 (3.75 if you will) that would feel similar to those fans feeling burned by 4e. Ultimately, it's no surprise that 5e represents an extreme reversal. 

As noted, I am not a 4th Edition fan, but half of my regular tabletop group prefer it to 5th Edition. One consequence of this is that I run a 5e game but never get to play it, which is a bit of a bummer. But there is something positive to say about it too. Playing 4th Edition at the same time that I run and create for 5th Edition has allowed me to draw a lot of comparisons between the two systems, and I've come to an inescapable conclusion: 5e's extreme reversal was a knee-jerk reaction to the visceral fan response, but I think it was actually a few steps too far back in time. While I don't like 4e as a complete package, it has many great features which would have been worth keeping in some fashion.

At-Will, Encounter, and Daily Powers

A 4e character never lacks for something interesting to do. Their abilities are divided between powers they can use all the time, powers they can use a limited number of times per encounter (with a 5-minute breather required between two challenging scenarios for the second to be treated as a new encounter), and those that can be used a limited number of times per day.

In 5e, per long rest powers are equivalent to a 4e daily, and basic attacks and cantrips are equivalent to (though perhaps not as exciting options as) 4e's at-wills. But per short rest powers are not equivalent to 4e encounter powers, and because of this it's quite possible for members of nonmagical classes to run out of interesting tactical choices.

Encounter powers were something my 4e fan players missed, to the point that I eventually did something about it, creating a subsystem called Signature Powers which introduces the concept of a Brief Rest (a 5 minute rest) into the 5e game, and gives all players a number of powers that recharge at the conclusion of a brief rest. Even the non-4e fans in the group appreciate the new tactical options available to them, which tells me that this encounters powers are a feature that should probably have survived the 4e reversal.

4e Powers

Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies

4e characters could reach level 30: 1-10 was the heroic tier, 11-20 was the paragon tier, and 21-30 the epic tier. I always felt that this was too much. D&D characters have insane levels of power by 20 that can already make it quite difficult to challenge them, to the point that epic-level play has never interested me. In 4e it wasn't an optional any more, it was the norm.

However, part of this system did appeal: at 11th level, you choose a Paragon Path for your character. At 21st, an Epic Destiny. These choices resemble a 5e character's Archetype choice, and define the shape of character's heroic journey. But they differ in that they are not necessarily connected to any one class. Granted, some have prerequisites, and some of them were better combinations with the various classes than others, but neither is necessarily the case. There's nothing stopping a Fighter, a Wizard, nor a Ranger from choosing the Demigod Epic Destiny, for instance.

In general a Paragon Path ties you to the world (often having to do with your race, your God, or another specific conceptual niche (in this way they resemble 3.5's Prestige Classes). An Epic Destiny gives your character a final goal, and along the way grants them powers and abilities that support it. A Destiny might make them a demigod, an undying warrior destined to reappear for major battles throughout time, a dark wanderer who need only to start walking and appear anywhere in the multiverse, and other grand finales appropriate to a level 30 being.

These choices combined help build a 4e character into an iconic, legendary figure, add mechanical oomph to the story of the character's journey, and they add a further level of customisation that helps two characters of the same class build out in different ways.

Unless you multiclass, 5e's character's growth is very prescribed; it definitely wouldn't hurt to have another choice (or series of choices) to make at certain points in your character's career, unrelated to their class.

4e Paragon Path: Blooded Champion

Healing Surges 

In 4e, all characters have access to a pool of resource known as a Healing Surge. During combat, any character can spend a Healing Surge to recover some hit points by using an ability everyone has access to: their Second Wind. Healing Surges can also be spent during rests. When a leader class such as a Cleric or Warlord uses a healing power, part of the hit points recovered come from the target's own Healing Surge pool, boosted by additional dice from the power used.

Healing Surges are a useful abstraction of a character's vitality, as well as providing a universal font healing power which can explain how healing from multiple different sources all happen while working mechanically the same way. For instance, a Warlord, able to inspire or cajole the troops back into action, does not need to awkwardly use a Cleric's Cure Wounds spells, but neither do they need their own unique set of rules to justify their power. Wherever the healing comes from, the Healing Surge makes it work within the rules. 

Healing Surges also empower non-healer characters to recover themselves,at least in a limited fashion, making it either a useful backup or an essential tool in a party without a dedicated healer.

The vestiges of healing surges remain in 5e: Hit Dice resemble them, though they can only be spent while resting. The Second Wind is now a feature exclusive to the Fighter, which in my opinion is a design mistake. It would be a useful ability to any hero, and probably should have remained universal. A form of Healing Surges is presented in the Dungeon Master's Guide (pg. 266) as a healing variant, but it doesn't interact with the game's existing healing spells and features in a meaningful way.

Save on a 10

When a 4e character comes under the influence of one or more hostile effects, they make a saving throw for each effect currently influencing them. They don't have saving throw modifiers, and the DCs never change: on a roll of 10 or higher, the character recovers.

This was a nice and simple mechanic. 5e's six different saving throws for six different abilities, any number of which might be proficient or not proficient? Less so. And fairly questionable—in theory it's a nice and neat idea, but in practice it's very hard to see how and when some of the saving throws might even be used. Wizards of the Coast could have provided better guidance on this, and the fact that they didn't leads me to suspect even they were unclear when you might roll an Intelligence or Charisma saving throw that couldn't just as easily be handled by a Wisdom save. I think we were better off back in the days of Fortitude, Reflex, and Will.

Succeeding on a 10 gave characters a strong fighting chance, and made them feel heroic. But that doesn't mean that high level monsters become impotent. Instead of increasing save DCs, 4e simply made the effects of these monster's powers nastier, and allowed them to use them with greater frequency (recharge powers remain in 5e, but in 4e they were probably more common).

Monster Level-Equivalency, Types and Roles

Monsters in 4e come in four flavours:

  • Regular monsters.
  • Minions are as strong as regular monsters but lack hit points—instead they are killed after one or two hits. They are treated as being worth 1/4 a regular monster. 
  • Elites are approximately as powerful as two normal monsters.
  • Solos are designed to be fought on their own, worth four normal monsters. 

The game's designers based the balance of these monsters around the simple assumption that for a normal combat, a group of PCs would fight an equal number of typical monsters appropriate for the party's current level. The DM could mix and match minions and elites (and even solos if they have a larger player group), as long as the overall effective number of monsters came out correct.

Having the monsters designed to be appropriate for a given PC level rather than using the more complicated CR system makes for straightforward encounter building. The only fly in the ointment was the questionable value of solos, but that's a problem 5e's legendary monsters face in equal measure.

In addition to the basic encounter building blocks described above, 4e monsters are also given defined roles, similar to a PC's class. Brutes hit hard, Soldiers have strong defenses and abilities to mark enemies and lock them down, Artillery have strong ranged attacks, Skirmishers are highly mobile and are at their most dangerous when they can move freely, Controllers can change the field of battle with area and forced movement powers, and so on.

 In 5e, these  roles can often be inferred from the context of a monster's capabilities, but are not clearly stated. Knowing a monster's role was a useful shorthand for how the DM should play the monster for best effectiveness in an encounter, so it would have been a useful entry to retain.

Building a 4e encounter is a fairly straightforward process involving three main considerations:

  • Pick monsters appropriate for the party level and the environment/scenario. 
  • Select the right number of monsters for your party size, making substitutes of Minions and Elites to add variance to the formula.
  • Choose a variety of monsters that occupy an interesting mix of monster roles.

With those three in mind, building an interesting 4e encounter is a quick and painless process for the DM. The burden was on the designer's side—there needs to be enough monsters of each level and role for such a system to be viable.

Alignment Simplification

I have never liked D&D's alignment system. My problem with it is two-fold: first, no DM I've ever met seems to have the same interpretation of what the alignments mean, making its value incredibly subjective.

D&D 2e/3e/5e Alignments, Muppets style.

Second, the absolute positions of most of the alignments seem realistically unattainable.

Let's explore that last point a little, taking Lawful Good as our example. Lawful Good is the given alignment of angels and other creatures of perfect good. Beings so pure that they know no other way to be, in fact. With the exception of the Jerkful Good holier-than-thou Paladin (now thankfully mostly a thing of the past, since 5e is a lot more flexible on paladin alignments and motivations), what mortals are really so perfect that they can stand on that same pedestal? And surely even the aforementioned Paladin has the occasional darker, selfish thought, even if they ultimately do not act on them.

Humans (and Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, etc.) are interesting precisely because they are positioned between the Angels and the Demons, with voices for both camps whispering in their heads. They have the freedom to make choices and choose their own values. If we accept that about them, we have to accept that they can never be perfect examples of the alignment they aspire to.

The vast majority of mortal kind are probably closer to neutral, wavering between selfish and altruistic instincts as normal people do. The instincts that an individual chooses to accept as the correct ones and let win out show a leaning in the direction of a certain alignment absolute, rather than positioning the person at that extreme. At best, a human might be the lower case "lawful good" to an angel's upper case Lawful Good.

Once you start thinking this way, you realise that alignment is an extremely broad spectrum rather than a set of 9 absolutes. To get a more-or-less accurate fix on where a character is positioned, you'd need to introduce other middling values somewhere between neutral and each extreme.

At which point you might as well simply say: maybe setting a character's alignment isn't worth the hassle". Let the player play how they want, interpreting their PC through their own subjective lens. It may not end up being the same way other PCs and NPCs see it. That's simply realistic.

This whole area of the game is subjective so you may not agree. I have heard good arguments against my interpretation of the system's flaws, albeit not good enough to convince me to abandon my position.

4e took a half-way step to abandoning the alignment system of the past. The game still used alignments, but they simplified the number of alignments one could choose from. Instead of two axes the game boiled the complexity of character alignment down to a single axis. You could be lawful good, good, unaligned, evil, or chaotic evil.

Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil remained the same - the absolute examples of holiness versus depravity. Good and Evil were approximate to "Neutral Good"and "Neutral Evil" from the past system, but crucially, they were non-committal on where the character stood ethically. You could tend toward orderly or anarchic behaviour, and still be considered ultimately Good or Evil based on your causes and your motivations. Unaligned replaced the "True Neutral" position, but was a useful catch-all for characters who were either particularly ethically or morally ambiguous, or who are simply indifferent, only showing leanings towards Good or Evil when it serves them to even act.

By having less alignments than the past but having those alignments represent broader categories, the game made it far easier to correctly place your character's alignment.

5e has done something weird. The designers clearly want alignment to be a less significant part of the game, because in this edition there are no mechanical effects that rely on the alignment system. Even Detect Evil and Good, Dispel Evil and Good, and Protection from Good and Evil don't care whether targeted creatures are either good nor evil. Instead these specify a list of creature types encompassing all creatures not native to the material plane Seriously Wizards of the Coast, nostalgia is all well and good, but you really should have renamed these spells to Protection from Outsiders or Detect the Otherworldly or whatever. They have caused so much confusion for my players.

While rejecting the mechanical implications of alignment outright, 5e chooses to keep it in the game, as well as to return to the older model. What's the point? Presumably it's supposed to be a tool for thinking about character motivations. If that's the case I'm not sure the 9-point system is the right model. The correct interpretations of the alignments are hotly debated to this day, and if players and DMs can't agree on what a given alignment means the words written on a character's sheet are a waste of graphite and white space. If alignment had to be in the game, a simpler system like 4e's might have been a better call. 

Your Thoughts

What parts of 4e or other past editions do you miss? Do you think I'm wrong? Let me know why by posting a comment! Dissenting opinions are equally welcomed as long as they remain polite and non-hostile.  

Friday, 6 October 2017

Empyrea: An Interview with Frank Mentzer

Some of you may have already heard about the kickstarter for Frank Mentzer's campaign setting Empyrea. For those who haven't, Empyrea is an expansive, detailed world that Frank has been developing since the late 70s.

I was able to ask Frank some questions about Empyrea, its history, the current project's development, and the setting's future.

Spilled Ale Studios
Can you tell the readers a bit about yourself and your creative team?

Frank Mentzer
Loxley inc is the parent company; Empyrea is the project. I’m Frank Mentzer, author and businessman. Back in the 1980s I became known for the D&D Basic “red box” series of 5 sets, which sold tens of millions of copies in 14 languages. I also started TSR’s RPGA network, co-authored Temple of Elemental Evil with Gary Gygax, and other things. But I left the game industry soon thereafter, returning for Eldritch Enterprises (2012-15) but otherwise inactive. I admire the true Founders of the game industry, folks who (unlike me) have been ‘in the trenches’ since the early 1970s.

For this project, DARLENE agreed to be partner and Graphics Manager as well as producing the big campaign map herself. Ted Fauster is my Aide, and will work with with me and TSR veteran Tim Beach for text & development. Peter Bradley, Don Higgins, Ogmios, and Mark Quire fill our general art needs, and Alyssa Faden & Anna Meyer handle special cartography. TSR veterans Steven Winter and Anne K. Brown will handle the editing. Finally, former GAMA president Chris Wiese is handling contracts and other business aspects, and Kevin "Doc" Wilson is Mr. Organization, managing the flow of the many sub-projects. We still need a Business Manager and some accounting support.

(The above list doesn’t include the 20 or so Legendary Names from the history of D&D, our contributing authors and artists. My PR team would defenestrate me.)

Spilled Ale Studios
I've heard that Empyrea is actually going to be part of the world of Greyhawk, thanks to written permission from E. Gary Gygax himself! That's great news for Greyhawk fans. Are you allowed to use Product Identity? If not, how have you handled references to gods and other named entities?

Frank Mentzer
My campaign is on the same planet. That’s the only connection, sorry. We have a whole continent to detail, its 350 year history leading to the epic decade that is our focus. A hostile sea lies between Gary’s campaign and mine, and he specifically wanted little or no contact. Since the immigrations occurred 3 centuries earlier, few recall the old names.

That said, each Game Master can use Empyrea as a blank slate, adding whatever style and details are desired. We are inspecific regarding all such, to avoid hampering the GM. The epic campaign events occur in the background, providing a realistic panorama of the Realm while you keep the focus on your characters. (If you want to add Greyhawk details, feel free; I simply cannot.)

Spilled Ale Studios
Empyrea has an origin story akin to all the old favourites, since it's actually your campaign setting of old! When did you create it, and was it the first world you made?

Frank Mentzer
It began in 1977, when a friend and I were the only players, and took turns being Dungeon Master. I used a tiny corner of The “Valon Sector” map from Judges Guild’s new “Wilderlands of High Fantasy”, and developed it from there (nothing like what they had in mind I’m sure). This is my first and only campaign world, in active use ever since (now online for over 25 years with the same players). I parked it during the 1980s, using campaign ideas for products I wrote at TSR and NIPI, but (like Greyhawk) those works are the property of others, entirely off-limits.

Spilled Ale Studios
Will Empyrea appeal to old school grognards and fans of "modern" rpgs equally?

Frank Mentzer
That sounds odd, doesn’t it? But that’s the plan. Empyrea has interesting neighbors, nearby enemies, and a turbulent future ahead. But at ground level it’s the same sort of world you’re probably using. It’s designed for easy use as your Second world, using your preferred game system. Thus, all the daily details, the character activities, their adventures and problems, all continue as ‘normal’. Details of Empyreal background, great forces in motion, and exciting twists & turns all await, once you’re settled in.

Spilled Ale Studios
Empyrea is intended to be suitable for multiple roleplaying games. What games is it compatible with, and can you tell us a little about how the rules are being tailored to suit each system?

Frank Mentzer
The boxed set contains DARLENE’s 2-piece continental map, two large soft-cover rulebooks (total 350 pages or more, might be larger), 3 little brown books (reminiscent of OD&D) with special details, and the System Book. Settings require less ‘crunch’ than adventures, being more about environment than encounters. The GM will work from the main book, then switch to the System book when the action starts.

Each set is thus for one and only one game system (no conversions required). You choose your system during the ordering process, and can order other System books if you play multiple RPGs. The Systems covered are: D&D 5e, 1e/2e, and BECMI (my Red Box etc); Runequest and Savage Worlds; and five OGL systems (derived from D&D) Pathfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Castles & Crusades, Swords & Wizardry, and Hackmaster. We expect to add even more in the future.

This is obviously just a first step. Later we’ll revise each Empyrea to make it entirely reflect that system, not just be ‘usable with’. In each case the terms, classes, spells, and other details imply a somewhat different world, and that will take quite a bit of work, so it’s in the future.

We’re in the process of building relationships with each publisher, especially so we can work together on future projects that support their game systems.

Spilled Ale Studios
Empyrea is going to be a complete product line, including the campaign setting, adventures, world primers, novels, and other supporting products. Can you offer any hints about other content you hope to make if the core set is well received?

Frank Mentzer
We’re keeping the core set as minimal as we can, to keep the price and shipping weight. Every setting requires a lot of support, so we’ll have City Books for the 7 Royal Cities and the capital, Realm books to describe adjacent areas, and assorted fiction. Empyrea has 3 centuries of history, and those eras provide more options for adventurers. We can offer complete Empyreal adventures for the various publishers to print and sell. However, a bestiary or spell compendium isn’t suggested, since each game system has its own. We’ll continue to focus on the place and its epic overall story, and leave the details to your preference.

Fantasy is at ground level, but look up. Science Fiction RPGs apply to nearby space. Eventual supplements will tie Traveller, Starfinder, and other great SF games to the Empyrea setting (but not mix them), and Supers, Steam, Cyber, and other genres await.

Spilled Ale Studios
Empyrea Online, a community project to involve fans in the development of Empyrea, sounds very ambitious. What can you tell us about how this grand undertaking will work?

Frank Mentzer
That’s years ahead, but it works like this. Online we build each of the ten (or more) worlds. Using Flash or similar tech you can observe from orbit and zoom all the way to map level.

From there you can still zoom in, but into a new map setup, breaking each hex into a bunch of much smaller ones. That’s the workbench, thousands of square miles of terrain that hasn’t been described. Claim an intersection, a piece of woods, a riverside, and start designing.

When you’re done, you submit your design to a group of other volunteers. They decide whether yours is good enough to use, and if not, whether Loxley’s professionals should polish it a bit. If and when your design is accepted, we integrate that officially as part of that Empyrea.

The resulting Empyreas (by game system) should automatically display in the language you choose, since gaming is a global hobby. You should also be able to contact each designer (through the system, to protect ID) and talk about it with newfound friends.

Eventually we’ll share the richest, most detailed fantasy world ever seen – by creating it together.

Spilled Ale Studios
There are a growing number of fantasy worlds out there that a tabletop group might choose from for their next campaign. In your own words, why should they choose Empyrea?

Frank Mentzer
Empyrea is designed to be your Second Home. Keep playing your usual game, but try this world on occasion. Later, while online or at game conventions, you’ll find others with their own Empyreas, and you can trade stories and make new friends. You might even finally try that other game system, since it’s so easy now...

Thanks for your interest, good folk. I hope to see you in Empyrea, a world we can share. I’ll save a place for you.

I don't know about you, but this all sounds very exciting to me! The fact that Frank has spent decades building this setting suggests the core book will be rich with lore. I also particularly like the idea that different versions of the setting will eventually evolve in which the world has subtly changed to suit the "laws of reality" each game system imposes on the fiction. Other settings with support for multiple systems try to shoehorn the same exact world into each system, even when it doesn't really fit.

You can find the Empyrea kickstarter here if you'd like to investigate it further or you're already raring to back it!

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

5e: Fighter Archetype, The War Sage

Traditionally, Intelligence-based heroes of Dungeons & Dragons have been spellcasters. While describing the Inquisitive in a recent preview video for Xanathar's Guide to Everything, Jeremy Crawford mentioned that it is a chance to give players the option of an intellectual hero that isn't tied to magic.

The archetype I want to show you today is my attempt to offer another Intelligence-based nonmagical class, this time for Fighters. I'm also personally of the opinion that fighters are a little dull in play (they are effective but typically offering a lack of choices. This is true even for the Battle Master as the maneuver/superiority dice system offers only a limited amount of flexibility a few times per short rest. The techniques used by the War Sage are recharge-based, so they allow for the possibility of greater usage. They can also be strung together into sequences during the same turn for interesting combos, although doing so will burn through the War Sage's available techniques rapidly.

Do let me know what you think, either in the comments or by reaching out on twitter!

The War Sage

Precision Attacks

Beginning when you choose this archetype at 3rd level, you add your Intelligence bonus to you Strength or Dexterity bonus when rolling attacks and damage, to a maximum combined bonus of +5.

If your ability bonus from your Strength, Dexterity, or Intelligence becomes +6 or higher, you use that bonus instead for all attacks and damage rolls to which that ability score applies.


Also at 3rd level, you learn three techniques, all of which must be leading, ensuing, reaction, or special techniques.

You learn two additional leading, ensuing, reaction, or special techniques at 7th and 10th level. At both 15th and 18th level, you learn two of any kind of technique, including finishing techniques.  Each time you learn new techniques, you can also replace one technique you know with a different one.

Types of Technique

Most techniques are either leading techniques, ensuing techniques, or finishing techniques. All such techniques replace one of your attacks during your turn’s attack action. If you spend your attack action exclusively to use a leading technique (you cannot use any other techniques or make any attacks), you can also spend a bonus action to use an ensuing technique.

With consecutive successful techniques, you can string together a sequence of lethal maneuvers, starting with a leading technique, potentially following up with an ensuing technique and ending with a finishing technique.

A few techniques are reactions and are labelled as such, while other special techniques use either no action or occupy your full turn, preventing you from taking any action or moving.

Some of your techniques require your target to make a saving throw to resist the technique’s effects. The saving throw DC is calculated as follows:

Technique save DC = 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Intelligence modifier

Technique Sequences

During an attack action, you can replace one or more of your attacks with a technique you know. Multiple techniques can be used directly following each other and against the same target to build up a sequence.

The first time you use a technique in a sequence, you must select a leading technique. A leading technique can either be followed by an attack or an ensuing technique.

You can only use an ensuing technique immediately following a successful leading technique, and only if the ensuing technique is made against the same target. An ensuing technique can either be followed by an attack or a finishing technique.

Similarly, you can only use a finishing technique immediately following a successful ensuing technique, and only if the finishing technique is against the same target. A finishing technique completes the sequence.

Using and Recovering Techniques

Once you have used a technique it is temporarily expended, and you cannot use it again until you recharge it.

When one or more of your techniques are expended, you roll a d6 at the beginning of your next turn. On a roll of 6, you regain your choice of one of your spent techniques. If you fail to regain a technique, the required roll on each subsequent turn is 1 lower than the last (5 or higher on the second turn, 4 or higher on the third, and so on).

Know Your Enemy

Starting at 7th level, if you spend at least 1 minute observing or interacting with another creature outside combat, you can learn certain information about its capabilities compared to your own. The DM tells you if the creature is your equal, superior, or inferior in regard to two of the following characteristics of your choice:

  • Strength score.
  • Dexterity score.
  • Constitution score.
  • Armor Class.
  • Current hit points.
  • Total class levels (if any).
  • Fighter class levels (if any).

Exploit Vulnerability

At 10th level, if you roll a critical hit against an enemy whom has failed a saving throw against one of your leading abilities in the same turn, you double your Intelligence bonus when resolving the attack’s damage.

Lethal Insights

At 18th level, you have advantage on attack rolls against a creature which you have observed using Know Your Enemy.


The techniques are in alphabetical order.

Assess (Leading)

You size up a target of your choice to find an exploitable weakness. Your target must make an Intelligence saving throw. On a failed save, the next attack you make against them ignores resistance to your weapon’s damage type.

Beat (Leading)

You attack your opponent’s weapon to knock it aside. You have advantage on the next attack you make this turn against the same target. In addition, your target must make a Strength saving throw. On a failed save, the target has disadvantage on the first attack it makes before the end of its next turn.

Block (Reaction)

After you are hit by a melee attack, you may spend your reaction and roll 1d4 and add it to your AC against the triggering attack.

Bloody Eye (Ensuing)

You make a weapon attack. If it hits, it deals half damage and the target must make a Dexterity saving throw. On a failed save, the target is blinded until the end of your next turn.

Break Free (Ensuing)

You make an attack and then disengage up to half your movement speed.

Charge (Leading)

You may move up to ten feet towards a hostile creature. You have advantage on the next attack you make this turn against that target.

Compound Feint (Ensuing)

You follow your leading technique with another feint. Your target must make a Wisom saving throw. On a failed save, you may add 1d4 to attack rolls you make against the target between now and the end of your next turn. Additionally, if you immediately follow the compound feint with an attack, you deal 2d6 extra damage if it hits.

Crowd Control (Special)

As your complete turn, you can make as many melee attacks against adjacent hostile creatures as you are normally allowed during your attack action. In addition, any adjacent hostile creatures against which you do not make at least one attack roll must make a Dexterity saving throw. On a failed save, a target takes damage of your weapon’s type equal to your Intelligence modifier.

Deadly Arc (Finishing)

You make a melee weapon attack, and up to two hostile creatures other than the target that are within your reach must make a Dexterity saving throw. On a failed save, each secondary target takes damage of your weapon’s type equal to your Intelligence modifier.

Dogged Pursuit (Reaction)

After an adjacent hostile creature disengages and ends their movement, you may spend your reaction and pursue them up to a maximum distance equal to your movement speed.

Draw Ire (Ensuing)

You make a weapon attack. If it hits, the target must make a Wisdom saving throw. On a failed save, if target takes any hostile actions on its next turn (such as attacks, spells, and powers), they must be directed against you or include you in their area of effect.

While the target is focused on you, your allies have advantage on attack rolls against them. However, all the effects of Draw Ire end the moment any of your allies successfully hits the target.

Fearsome Blow (Finishing)

You make a weapon attack. If it hits, double your ability bonus to damage and the target must make a Wisdom saving throw. On a failed save the target is shaken, as described below, for a number of turns equal to your Intelligence modifier minus their Wisdom bonus (if any).

While the target is shaken, if they move 5 feet or more or take the dash or disengage action on their turn, they have disadvantage on all attacks and ability checks made during the same turn.

Feint (Leading)

You have advantage on the next attack you make this turn against the same target. In addition, your target must make a Wisdom saving throw. On a failed save, if you immediately follow your feint with an attack or a technique that deals damage, you deal 1d6 extra damage if it hits.

Misdirect (Ensuing)

You may make an attack with advantage. If it hits, the damage of the attack is halved.

Patinando (Ensuing)

You may move up to five feet then make a weapon attack.

Penetrate (Ensuing)

You make a weapon attack. If the attack hits, you deal a number of additional d4s in damage equal to your Proficiency bonus.

Pommel Smash (Ensuing)

You make a weapon attack. If it hits, it deals half damage and the target must make a Constitution saving throw. On a failed save, the target is dazed and suffers disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks until the end of your next turn.

Riposte (Special)

After you successfully use your block technique, you make a melee weapon attack against the creature you blocked.

Strike Arm (Finishing)

You make a melee weapon attack. If it hits, the target must make a Constitution saving throw. On a failed save, the target reduces the damage of its unarmed and weapon attacks by your Proficiency bonus for a number of rounds equal to your Intelligence modifier. The target may repeat its saving throw at the end of each of its turns to end the effect early.

Strike Leg (Finishing)

You make a melee weapon attack. If it hits, the target must make a Constitution saving throw. On a failed save, the target has its movement and swim speeds halved for a number of rounds equal to your Intelligence modifier. The target may repeat its saving throw at the end of each of its turns to end the effect early.

Threaten (Leading)

You use your deadly skill to intimidate an opponent into making a mistake then exploit that window. You have advantage on the next attack you make this turn against the same target. In addition, your target must make a Charisma saving throw. On a failed save, if you immediately follow Threaten by making an attack against a target or using a technique against them that involves an attack roll, you may add 1d4 to the attack roll.

Weeping Wound (Finishing)

You make a melee weapon attack. If it hits, the target must make Dexterity saving throw. On a failed save, the attack breaks flesh and the target begins to bleed. At the beginning of each of their subsequent turns, the target suffers untyped damage equal to your Proficiency bonus for a number of rounds equal to your Intelligence modifier.

Monday, 2 October 2017

5e: Wasteland Worlds

Hi all!

As regular readers and existing customers may know, one of my D&D 5e products is a collection of classes and archetypes called Wasteland Wanderers.

These classes and archetypes are designed with a post-apocalyptic setting in mind, and could also fit thematically in other sci-fi settings. Even if you have no interest in such a campaign many of them can be used in more traditional fantasy worlds with either very little adaptation on your part, or no changes required at all.

But what post-apocalyptic settings are out there for D&D 5e?

There's my own Fifth Edition Fallout, which served as the original inspiration for Wasteland Wanderers.

There's also Mike Myler's 2099 Wasteland, an alternate universe version of his superheroic cyberpunk setting Hypercorps 2099. As you might expect, mutant powers from radiation exposure and even magic are part of the fabric of the setting. The game comes with its own classes, but Wasteland Wanderers offers you additional viable alternatives, and was even mentioned by Mike in his Professional Goblins podcast!

As far as I'm aware, those are the only presently published post-apocalyptic settings for use with D&D 5e rules. If you know better, please do leave a comment.

Finally there's always the option of defining your own worlds, which is a challenge many of us relish.

For those Game Masters who prefer to use published material, however, this list might be considered slim pickings.

I've been considering publishing a compilation of example post-apocalyptic settings designed for use with Wasteland Wanderers, that would also serve as a rules reference. The working title for this concept is Wasteland Worlds. The idea is that Wasteland Worlds would include all the rules you need to run a post-apocalyptic game—environmental hazards, weapons, etc.—derived from similar rules originally created for Fifth Edition Fallout. It would also include three settings, each portraying a very different world in the wake of different apocalyptic events. Each setting would dedicate 30 pages or so to describing its world and providing additional rules and other crunch unique to itself, including notes on how to use and/or reskin monsters from the core D&D game.

I'm presently polling on twitter to see what kind of interest there would be for this sourcebook, and would be very grateful if you could take a moment of your time to add your vote. Brief summaries of my three proposed settings follow, and the embedded twitter poll can be found at the end of this post.

Proposed Settings

Rad Planet

After the destruction of the world in nuclear fire, those few who survived the devastation and its radioactive fallout reverted to a pre-civilised society. There are those who cling to the shreds of the past’s civility and try to rebuild, but they contend with the raiders, the savage primals, and the mutant beasts that now wander the radlands.

Black Water

The survivors of the Flood dwell on isolated Platforms which fall into greater disrepair day by day. The brave and the desperate venture out onto the waters via skimmers or into the depths themselves inside submersibles, seeking salvage from wrecks and abandoned Platforms. But the sunken depths contain many dangers, and the forgotten Platforms have new occupants.


On a frozen planet, people live in deep bunkers. It is foolish to venture onto the blizzard-wracked surface, though long-abandoned technologies await those who brave the cold. The underground is not without its own dangers: when the bunkers were constructed, a network of deep tunnels were found. In the decades since the Deep Freeze, it was discovered that the bunkerfolk were not alone...

The Poll

Let me know if you would consider purchasing this product if it were available by responding the survey below!

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

5e: NPC, Signifier Kyuuban

Presenting the first in a planned series of (hopefully) interesting NPCs for you to insert into your games!
Signifier Kyuuban

Art by and © Brett Neufeld

Arcanic Monk

Lawful Neutral


Heterosexual (celibate)


Athletic, Powerful

Olive Green


Brunette (shaven)

Mystic tattoos

Intellectual, calm and slow to anger, appreciates humour and whimsy.

A muscular half-orc man who dresses in the simple garb of a monk. He is tattooed from head to foot with mystic symbols which act as his spellbook, and glow with a golden light when he casts magic spells.

Signifier Kyuuban was given the name "Bertal Biddle" at birth. He was the son of a half-orc caravan guard and a human seamstress who lived in Waterdeep's poor South Ward. Bertal's mother died during an outbreak of featherlung when he was young, and his father began taking him along with the caravans which employed him. Bertal's life took another tragic turn when the caravan was attacked by dekanter goblins as it passed through the graypeak mountains. His father set him aside a horse, and bid him ride for his life.

Two days later, Bertal was discovered by monks from the Monastic Order of the Woven Road, a group who worshipped Mystra and combined meditative and martial arts practices with a deep study of arcanic lore. The monks took him in, and investigated what had happened to his caravan. When it was discovered that there were no other survivors, the monks decided to let Bertal live among them as an initiate.

In the intervening decades, Bertal embraced his studies and became one of the most promising of the order's initiates, finally earning the title Signifier Kyuuban, indicating his rank as a signifier and his seniority as the ninth of that circle.

Signifier Kyuuban's responsibility to the Order is to travel far and wide, seeking out promising recruits for the continued survival of the monastery. He searches for youths whose lot in life is suffering, and offers them the same opportunity he was once given.
Proficiencies and Talents
  • Acrobatics, Arcana, Athletics, Insight, Religion
  • Excellent whistler
Significant Possessions


Tuesday, 26 September 2017

5e: Shipwreck Golem

I recently painted the first of my many, many Reaper Bones 3 miniatures. Which was probably a bit daft considering most of the minis I got from Bones 1 are still unpainted.

The first I decided to paint was a surprise favourite. I added the Coral and Shipwreck Golem to my orders because they looked kind of cool, but I wasn't at all prepared for how awesome the Shipwreck Golem in particular really looks when you have it in your hands. Guys, this is a really great mini. Not only does it look utterly badass, it also has a lot of incredible fine details such as an octopus and starfish hanging on the coral and limpets clinging to the broken hull of the ship. The skeleton strapped to the ship's wheel, the mermaid figurehead, exotic tiki statue, bottles, and random treasures that help make up the golem's body are all great touches too. I really can't singe the praises of this miniature enough.

All in all, it's a bit of a shame that I was the one who painted it, since my talent is passable at best. That said, I ended up being pretty pleased with the results.

Shipwreck Golem and Grubblin  

Of course with the mini painted, I was itching for an excuse to use it! To make that happen, I needed a statblock. Here's a few things I was thinking about when making this monster:

  • The CR needed to be appropriate for my CR 12 party, or close enough that I wouldn't have to wait too long!
  • The skeleton on the wheel reminded me that shipwrecks are intimately connected with death. I thought it would be interesting to say that the animating force for a shipwreck golem is the unquiet spirits of the ship's deceased crew. Therefore, while the golem is not technically an undead creature, spellcasters who make a shipwreck golem are often necromancers, or at least not squeamish about borrowing the power of the dead. This feature factored into the golem's mental ability scores and my decision to give it proficiency in Wisdom saves. 
  • Given the size of the miniature and the fact it is a ship (albeit a wrecked one), I thought it would be cool if one of a shipwreck golem's features was the ability to safely transport one or more people under the sea. This led to the decision that the golem is attuned to an amulet, like a shield guardian, and the owner of the amulet can control the golem's movements and enter a magically watertight chamber in its interior. 
  • Golems are generally vulnerable to kiting. Even though the shipwreck golem miniature does have two cannons (one large and one small), these aren't its primary attack modes (the larger cannon is limited with a recharge, and it can't multiattack with either one). Kiting is still a fairly viable strategy—and especially a problem for me if my PCs encounter the golem in its typical underwater environment. My party would be able to use their cloaks of the manta ray (which grant an obscene swim speed of 60 ft., so take a lesson from me and don't ever give your party the recipe for this item if you want to run any more water-based adventures). Accordingly I thought about ways to limit the movement of nearby PCs and keep them where the golem can threaten them.

Whether or not you have the perfect miniature, I hope you all like the monster presented below and get a chance to use it in your campaigns!

As a special bonus, stats for Grubblin the goblin pirate (also pictured) are included. In my home campaign, Grubblin acquired the Shipwreck Golem's control amulet under unknown circumstances (he claims he slew a Merrow Priestess for it) and now wanders the bottom of the ocean inside it, in search of treasures.

Shipwreck Golem
Huge construct, unaligned

Armor Class

17 (natural armor)

Hit Points

199 (19d12 + 95)


40 ft., swim 40 ft.
24 (+7) 15 (+2) 20 (+5) 7 (-2) 10 (+0) 3 (-4)

Saving Throws

Wis +4

Damage Immunities

poison; bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks that aren't made with an adamantine or dreamcoral weapon.

Condition Immunities

charmed, exhaustion, frightened, paralyzed, petrified, poisoned


darkvision 120 ft.; passive Perception 10


Understands commands given in any language but can't speak


12 (8,400 XP)


The shipwreck golem is magically bound to an amulet, which must be attuned. As long as the golem and its amulet are on the same plane of existence, the amulet's wearer can telepathically call the golem to travel to it, and the golem knows the distance and direction to the amulet.

Immutable Form.

The golem is immune to any spell or effect that would alter its form.

Magic Resistance.

The golem has advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects.

Magic Weapons.

The golem's weapon attacks are magical.


The wearer of the shipwreck golem's amulet can enter the interior of the golem as an action, as long as they are at least one size smaller than the golem. If the wearer is Medium or smaller, they can also take up to three willing creatures into the golem's interior with them. The shipwreck golem's interior is magically watertight, enabling underwater travel.

Tidal Anchor.

Waters within 60 feet of the shipwreck golem rage with powerful currents, halving the speed and swim speed of all creatures other than the golem itself while they within the affected area and they are even partially submerged in water.


The shipwreck golem makes two attacks with its anchor pick and one with its falconet.

Anchor Pick.

Melee Weapon Attack: +11 to hit, reach 10 ft., one target. Hit: 20 (2d12 +7) piercing damage.


Ranged Weapon Attack: +6 to hit, range 300/1,200 ft, one target. Hit: 24 (3d10 +7) bludgeoning damage, and the target must make a DC 19 Strength saving throw or be knocked prone or pushed 10 feet (golem's choice).

Cannon (Recharge 5-6).

+6 to hit, range 600/2,400 ft, one target. Hit: 51 (8d10 +7) bludgeoning damage, and the target must make a DC 19 Strength saving throw or be knocked prone or pushed 10 feet (golem's choice).

Alternatively, the shipwreck golem targets a 5-foot wide and 60-foot long line which is cut short if the cannonball hits a Huge or Gargantuan creature before reaching the end of its trajectory. All creatures within the affected area must make a DC 19 Dexterity saving throw, taking 22 (4d10) bludgeoning damage and falling prone on a failed save or taking half as much damage if successful.

Grubblin, Goblin Pirate
Small humanoid (goblin), neutral evil

Armor Class

15 (leather armor)

Hit Points

108 (24d6 + 24)


40 ft., swim 40 ft.
11 (+0) 19 (+4) 13 (+1) 12 (+1) 11 (+0) 15 (+2)

Saving Throws

Con +4, Wis +3


Acrobatics +10, Deception +8, Perception +6, Persuasion +5, Stealth +10


darkvision 60 ft.; passive Perception +3


Common, Goblin


5 (1,800 XP)

Audacious Attacks

Grubblin has advantage on attack rolls against any target when there are no hostile creatures other than the target adjacent to him.

When Grubblin is adjacent to two or more hostile creatures, he can make an additional attack when he uses his Multiattack action as long as he doesn't target the same creature with all four attacks.

Nimble Escape.

Grubblin can take the Disengage or Hide action as a bonus action on each of his turns.

Doing it with Style.

Grubblin adds his Charisma bonus to his initiative and damage rolls (included in his attacks).


Grubblin makes three attacks with his cutlass.


Melee Weapon Attack: +7 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 10 (1d8 +6) slashing damage.

Hand Crossbow.

Ranged Weapon Attack: +7 to hit, range 30/120 ft, one target. Hit: 9 (1d6 +6) piercing damage.