Wednesday, 31 May 2017

GM Advice: Puzzle Inspirations

An area of the game where GMs can really stretch their creative muscles is puzzles. No system has elaborate mechanics for puzzles, because it's not something you can police. Every puzzle is different, and if you reduce it to a series of rolls it becomes, essentially, a waste of time. This is a problem that occurred with traps in later editions of Dungeons & Dragons. In the early game, players would rely on their wits and creative thinking to detect traps and figure out how to bypass them or disrupt their mechanisms. Eventually, the game's designers tried to account for the fact that a character's skills and knowledge are not the same thing as a player's skills and knowledge. Traps could be discovered and deactivated purely by making skill checks. It's a reasonable idea in theory, but the practical effect was to reduce traps to the role of largely tedious speed bumps in the game's pacing. They were barriers to progression before, of course, but they presented a challenge the player could sink their teeth into.

Puzzles, when used, remain a part of the game where the person being challenged is really the player, not their character. I'd argue that this isn't a bad thing. The player is the one we're trying to entertain, Does it matter, in the end, how that is accomplished? It does follow, however, that puzzles are only worthwhile additions when we have players who will be entertained by them.

When you can't create, borrow.

If you have at least some players that enjoy an occasional puzzle challenge, then like me you might struggle to invent suitably creative challenges. It's probably not a surprise to anyone when I say that creating a good puzzle from scratch is extremely hard, and it's usually best to borrow and re-purpose one that already exists.For instance, you might be able to lift one straight from a published adventure. You could do that as is, or you could think about the actual mechanics of the puzzle (the choices and combinations made, and the results), and dress it up in a new skin.

Use actual games as inspiration.

You can do much the same with real world puzzles and games. Here are a few examples, all of which might be necessary to unlock a chest/door/magical barrier/secret passage/etc.:

  • In a predetermined number of moves, move a knight to a specific place or take a specific piece on a chess board (known in the Forgotten Realms as a lanceboard).
  • Solve a series of riddles. 
  • Solve the words of a riddle and make up a poker hand's worth of playing cards based on the clues. 
  • Solve a Tower of Hanoi.
  • Complete a pairs game within a set amount of turns.
There are huge benefits to using real world puzzles as the basis of your own. First, it helps you to develop the puzzle. Even if you add your own twists to the game, you're not starting from scratch. Second, it aids in player understanding of the puzzle. It is a lot easier to follow the logic of a puzzle if you have prior experience with it or can quickly understand its building blocks. Finally, you can use physical props, which will also help with comprehension while additionally increasing player engagement. 

Take the puzzle out of its original context.

You can increase the challenge of a real world puzzle by re-skinning it so that it's not immediately obvious what the puzzle is. That way, even players who have prior experience with the puzzle will still go through a process of discovery before that satisfying moment that understanding clicks and they breeze through the solution. Take the Tower of Hanoi example above. While you could totally just have the players solve a literal example of the puzzle to unlock a door, you can instead take the mechanics of the puzzle and build something new out of it. 

I successfully used this puzzle during an adventure by making it the means for the PCs to cross an otherwise impassable chasm. Here's the set-up:

The PCs arrive at one side of a chasm. The far side is distant enough that they have no means to cross. Along the near side of the chasm are a number of platforms, floating above the plunging descent. They are all different sizes, with the smallest on the left and the largest on the right. There can be any number of platforms, as appropriate to the size of your party.

Stepping onto any of the platforms causes that PC to be trapped on the platform by a magical field which cannot be bypassed in any way. The only way to bring down the field is to solve the puzzle and cross to the other side of the chasm. A control panel on the platform seems to indicate that the PC can move the platform bidirectionally across the chasm, but the controls don't yet function. A graphic indicator on the control shows the platforms and the PC's is lit up. The first step to the solution is realising that the other platforms need to be manned by the remaining PCs.

Once the platforms are all manned, they become active. But only the PC on the leftmost, smallest platform finds that they can move their platform. They can move it half-way across the chasm, or to the far side of the chasm. If they move to the far side, the magical barrier remains (all platforms must reach this side for it to vanish). Whichever position they choose, the platform then moves all the way to the right (parallel to the largest platform). The PC on the second smallest platform now finds that theirs can move, but only to the position not currently occupied by the smallest platform.

Chasm Crossing of Hanoi.

This puzzle is not immediately obvious as a Tower of Hanoi. For a start, there's nothing tower-like about any components. But through trial and error, players can learn that all the same rules apply. The platforms can move between three points. The solution is only reached once all platforms are at the furthest point from where they start. Finally, no platform can move to a position if it would be larger than a platform already in that position. The puzzle can be solved via understanding of a Tower of Hanoi (once one or more players figure out what it is), or the same way that a Tower of Hanoi is normally solved by someone who's never done it before: through trial and error.

As I mentioned earlier, physical props can help with understanding and engagement. I drew this puzzle out on my chessex mat, using dotted lines to mark the legal positions, and placed cardboard circles along the first dotted line to represent the platforms. My players were allowed to physically move the platforms, with me telling them whenever a move was illegal. 

Tower of Hanoi Solution (this image from Wiki Commons)
Instead of a horizontal Tower of Hanoi, as above. You could stick in the vertical plane and make the platforms into lifts. Solving the puzzle will take the PCs higher (or lower) in the dungeon.

Add twists.

You can add new rules to existing puzzles to increase the challenge level. For instance, I used a pairs game in one adventure. The first twist was, of course, the one described before: a turn limit. The second I added was that every time the PCs failed to find a pair, all the already discovered pairs were also turned back over. The third was that even if the PCs found a pair, it might not be considered a success: the pairs had to be found in the right order.

Solving the puzzle was a matter of finding, and remembering, a certain sequence. In short, it was equivalent to a password or safe combination.

Once again I used physical props for this to great success: I created a pairs game out of card which the players could actually play at my table.

The trick to any pairs game puzzle is in deciding how many turns is a reasonable limit. This becomes harder to assess when permutations like those above are involved. As a general rule, be generous. Your players will waste a few turns just figuring out the rules. Or, you can afford them the opportunity to learn the rules, perhaps via a riddle. Other clues you might want to seed in the dungeon nearby are partial combinations that reveal some of the necessary pair sequence.

Or how about that old classic of simply solving one or more riddles? Can we spice that up? Imagine, for example, a room full of old portraits with a locked door that can only be opened by entering a number sequence via a keypad. The first riddle reveals that the combination can be found under the portraits, but that the order of the numbers will be determined by solving the riddles that follow. Lifting the portraits from the wall will reveal that every single one has a number underneath, though of course a lot of these are not part of the solution at all.

Each time the PCs solve a riddle, they can find its subject in one of the portraits in the room. If the answer to the riddle is "a mountain", they need to find a portrait with a mountain in it.

For added challenge, consider a situation where the solution to some riddles might be found in multiple portraits. However, all but one of those portraits is actually the correct portrait to go along with either a riddle they've already solved (in which case they can immediately eliminate it), or a riddle later in the sequence (in which case they will need to find out all the possibilities for the whole sequence and then eliminate possibilities until only the correct sequence remains).

Another option for spicing up riddles might be for the puzzle to require the PCs to draw the solution. This is no more complex than asking them to guess aloud, but you can get your players to actually do the drawings at the table, adding a fun physical element and perhaps injecting some hilarity into your game depending on the quality of the drawings.

What puzzles have you borrowed for your games? 

And what were your successes and failures? Share your stories in the comments!

Sunday, 28 May 2017

5e: Fighter Archetype—The Fist Fighter

Important Notice!

— The Fist Fighter is now on DMsGuild! —

The Fist Fighter archetype first presented here has been polished up and made available to download from as a Pay What You Want product. Please consider downloading it from there and making a small contribution to support the continued development of this blog and other Spilled Ale Studios products!

Purchase it here.

Hybrid Archetypes: Fist Fighters Cover © RDD Wilkin / Spilled Ale Studios.

Today, I have another fighter archetype for you.

The Fist Fighter is my attempt to make an unarmed warrior without all the mystic/wuxia elements integrated into the monk. While I am a big fan of the Pugilist class by the Sterling Vermin Adventuring Co, to the point that I'm presently playing one, I wanted to try and create an archetype that would achieve a similar theme making use of core class features.

This archetype is somewhat unusual, in that it assumes that a character began their career as a Monk and multiclassed into Fighter. Taking just a single level of Monk grants a character all the necessary features to realise the essentials of the theme—unarmored defense, and improved unarmed attacks from the martial arts feature.

The character then multiclasses into Fighter, which will grant them all the features they need to be a potent warrior without all the exotic elements of the Monk which we're not interested in for this concept.

The first feature of this archetype is what ties everything together, allowing the Fist Fighter to treat their Fighter levels as Monk levels in respect to the damage from the Monk's 1st level Martial Arts feature. It also ensures that the Fist Fighter will eventually be able to treat their unarmed strikes as magical. If the DM prefers, they may wish to ignore this feature. An alternative is to grant the Fist Fighter PC bracers, an amulet, or some other kind of magic item that lets them treat their unarmed strikes as magical when they attain an appropriate level, in the same way that the DM would hand other PCs magical weapons.

The Fist Fighter

Fists of Fury

Beginning when you choose this archetype at 3rd level, your  Fighter levels count as Monk levels for the purpose of determining your Monk Martial Arts damage.

When you attain 6th level, your fighting passion burns so fiercely within you that your unarmed strikes count as magical for the purpose of overcoming resistance and immunity to nonmagical attacks and damage.

Iron Body

At 7th level, your long experience of brutal brawls against tough and often armed opponents dramatically increases your endurance. You can now use your Second Wind twice per short or long rest. Additionally, you have advantage on saving throws against exhaustion.

Technical Fighting 

At 10th level, once per turn when you hit a target with an unarmed strike, you can choose to force the target to make a Strength or Dexterity saving throw or else suffer one of the following effects:
  • The target must succeed at a Strength or Dexterity saving throw is moved to any free space within 10 feet of both the target and yourself.
  • The target becomes prone.
  • You and the target switch places.
The saving throw DC for Technical Fighting is calculated as follows:

Technical Fighting save DC = 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Strength or Dexterity modifier (your choice)

Signature Move

At 15th level, you gain one of the following features of your choice.
  • Cross-counter. When an attacker that you can see and within your reach hits you with a melee attack, you can use your reaction to make an unarmed strike against them.   
  • Rabbit Punch. You can forfeit your extra attacks during an Attack action you make while unarmed, making only a single attack instead. For the purpose of this attack only, you score a critical hit on a roll of 18-20. Additionally, if the attack hits your target is stunned until the beginning of your next turn. 
  • Uncanny Dodge. When an attacker that you can see hits you with an attack, you can use your reaction to halve the attack's damage against you.  

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

5e: Two New Feats—Mental Focus and Physical Conditioning

Last week's article on skilled dwarf and elf variants had me thinking about other ways a character's expertise might manifest. In particular, I got to thinking that 5e features in general are about excellence—a character stands out from other people because when they attempt a task, they do it with greater style and power.

But what if a character's mastery took a different tack? Perhaps their best is on the same level as anyone else's, but they succeed where others fail because they have trained themselves to approach things correctly and make less mistakes?

The two feats I ultimately came up with and present to you below are therefore not about flashiness, but about damage control. When conditions are already unfavourable, a character in possession of one of these feats can limit the weakness of their current position and come out relatively unaffected.

Mental Focus

You have honed your mind and practiced keeping your cool in unexpected and distracting situations, allowing you to maintain your complete focus when things are at their worst. 

  • Increase your Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma score by 1, to a maximum of 20. 
  • Once per short rest you can roll a Concentration check with advantage.  
  • Whenever you roll an Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma ability check and have disadvantage, you roll three d20s and use the middle roll (if two or more of the dice roll the same number, use that number). 

Physical Conditioning

You have trained your body to the peak possible condition, and know your strengths and weaknesses inside and out. Your movements and stances are always optimal for the task at hand, and depending on the nature of a threat to your body you know just when to tense your muscles, relax them, or explode into movement. 

  • Increase your Strength, Dexterity, or Constitution score by 1, to a maximum of 20.
  • Once per short rest, you can reduce the damage from any physical or energy source, but not psychic, by a number of hit points equal to twice your Proficiency bonus. 
  • Whenever you roll a Strength, Dexterity, or Constitution ability check and have disadvantage, you roll three d20s and use the middle roll (if two or more of the dice roll the same number, use that number). 

Sunday, 21 May 2017

5e: Fighter Archetype—The Legendary Hero

Important Notice!

— The Legendary Hero is now on DMsGuild! —

The Legendary Hero archetype first presented here has been polished up and made available to download from as a Pay What You Want product. Please consider downloading it from there and making a small contribution to support the continued development of this blog and other Spilled Ale Studios products!

Purchase it here.

Martial Schools: Legendary Hero Cover © RDD Wilkin / Spilled Ale Studios.

Those of you who read my recent article on lessons video games can teach us know that recently I've been playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Today I want to talk about a specific character archetype for which Link is a perfect example. Let's call this archetype the Legendary Hero.

The Legendary Hero is first and foremost a warrior, but they are tied up in a great destiny generally involving saving the world and defeating a deadly evil. Since no mere swordsman can be expected to achieve such lofty goals with the strength of their sword arm alone, a Legendary Hero is set apart from regular warriors by the possession or eventual acquisition of special items and otherwordly powers that give them a fighting chance at overcoming the challenges they are destined to face.

Just a few examples of Legendary Heroes in popular media include Link from the Legend of Zelda series, Luke Skywalker and Rey from the Star Wars franchise, and Buffy, the titular character of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Below I present my first pass at a Legendary Hero archetype for the Fighter Class. But before I move on to the crunch, I want to talk briefly about how a legendary hero fits into a game of D&D.

In the media in which they appear, legendary heroes are either the main drivers of the plot, or the plot's main focus, and sometimes both. D&D, on the other hand, is an ensemble game. It's important that all characters get equal focus (or as equal as you can manage), and similar opportunities to shine. That doesn't mean legendary heroes can't have a place in a D&D party. There's a few approaches you could take in your game:

Option one is to not tie the legendary hero's destiny into the main story, or have them be only partially related. This way, although the legendary hero has an important part to play in the world, they are no more or less destined to face the campaign's final problems than the rest of the party. As far as the game's primary plot is concerned, all are equals.

Option two requires buy in from your players. In this option, the other party members have their own destiny, which is to support the legendary hero throughout their quest, even unto the final encounter. You can have the campaign play out completely as normal, including your final boss fight, but perhaps the legendary hero gets to strike a final blow after the party reduce the big bad's hit points to zero. Supporting the legendary hero does not make the rest of the party any less significant to the story—think of Willow, Xander and Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or the role plaid by Han, Leia, Chewie and the Droids in Star Wars. Buffy and Luke may have the great destinies, but the stories they appear in are just as much about the people that help them reach their destiny and anchor them. Nevertheless, some players might not like this kind of campaign, while others would enjoy the unique roleplaying challenges it brings.

Option three is to keep the legendary hero's destiny deliberately vague. There's a world of difference between being destined to "strike down the great evil" (specific) and being destined to "bring about the great evil's downfall" (vague). By keeping things nebulous, you can play without worrying too much exactly what the legendary hero has to do, or treat them any differently from the other player characters. If someone else strikes the finishing blow against the great evil, the legendary hero's destiny is still fulfilled. Perhaps their very presence at the end was the difference that charted fate's course down the path of victory, rather than defeat.

The Legendary Hero

Legendary Gift

Beginning when you choose this archetype at 3rd level, and once again at 15th level, fate intervenes to grant you unique gifts that will help you succeed at the monumental task before you. Each time you gain this feature, choose either destined item, Legendary Powers, or Destiny's Momentum.

destined item

You are linked with a magical item which is connected to your destiny.Your destined item must be agreed between you and your DM, and can be any uncommon, non-expendable magic item. In addition to the properties of a typical magic item of that type, your destined item possesses two minor properties and may possess one quirk at your option (refer to DMG page 143). At your option, the destined item can also be sentient, in which case it can only communicate with you, and does so by transmitting emotion when you carry or wield it, unless it also possesses the "language" minor property. A sentient destined item has hearing and normal vision out to 30 feet.

At 7th, 13th, and 19th level your destined item gains one of the following upgrades (subject to compatibility with the item and your DM's approval):
  • Improves to the next rarity tier (if an option for the item in question).
  • +1 bonus to attack and damage rolls.
  • +1d4 to damage rolls.
  • +1 to AC.
  • Advantage to one type of saving throw.
  • Resistance to one type of damage.
  • Gains the features of another uncommon item.

Legendary Powers

A powerful being, a mysterious stranger, a bloodline legacy, or an ancient ritual has granted you uncanny abilities.

Choose any first level spell, which you learn. When you reach 7th level you may learn one 2nd-level spell or two additional 1st-level spells. At 13th level you may learn one 3rd-level spell, or two additional 2nd-level spells. At 19th level you may learn one 4th-level spell or two additional 3rd-level spells.

You have two spell slots per short rest at 3rd level, three per short rest at 11th level, and four per short rest at 17th level. You can use your spell slots to cast any of your spells learned through the legendary powers class feature.

Your spellcasting ability for legendary powers is Charisma, since they rely on your force of will. You use your Charisma whenever a spell refers to your spellcasting ability. In addition, you use your Charisma modifier when setting the saving throw DC for a spell you cast and when making an attack roll with one.

Spell save DC = 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Charisma modifier

Spell attack modifier = your proficiency bonus + your Charisma modifier

Destiny's Momentum

As the vessel through which the world's course will be corrected, you possess the exceptional ability to twist free of the grasp of any fate that doesn't align with your own destiny. You gain a number of destiny's momentum points equal to half your Fighter level (rounded up). You can spend these points to fuel various features, shown below.

When you spend a point of destiny's momentum, it is unavailable until you finish a short or long rest, at the end of which your power to influence destiny is restored to your full allowance of points.

When destiny's momentum features require your target to make a saving throw to resist the feature's effects, the saving throw DC is calculated as follows:

Destiny's momentum save DC = 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Charisma modifier

Destiny's Momentum Maneuvers

  • Clear the Thorny Path. Spend a point of destiny's momentum after your weapon attack hits to deal maximum damage instead of rolling the weapon's damage dice.
  • Crushing Doom. Spend a point of destiny's momentum after reducing an enemy to cause all creatures within thirty feed to make a Wisdom saving throw or be shaken until the end of their next turn. If a creature moves 5 feet or more or takes the dash or disengage action on their turn while they are shaken, they have disadvantage on all attacks and ability checks made in the same turn.
  • Defiance in the Face of Certain Death. Spend a point of destiny's momentum after being reduced to 0 hit points without being killed by massive damage to immediately roll one of your Hit Dice and add your Constitution modifier, instantly gaining that many hit points and regaining consciousness. You can use destiny's momentum in this fashion only once per short or long rest.
  • Destiny's Protection. Spend a point of destiny's momentum to take the Dodge action as a bonus action on your turn.
  • Guard of Flashing Steel. As long as you are wielding a weapon or improvised weapon, you can spend a point of destiny's momentum after you are hit by a melee or ranged weapon attack to roll your weapon's damage dice and reduce the damage of the incoming attack by that amount.
  • Hero's Onslaught. Spend a point of destiny's momentum to make an additional attack as a bonus action.
  • Slip the Chains. When you take the Disengage action, spend a point of destiny's momentum to treat enemies as difficult terrain when you would not normally be able to move through their space.

Heroic Effort

Starting at 7th level, once per short rest when you fail to meet the target of any attack roll, ability check, or saving throw, you can add +5 to the result. When you do so, you become winded. A level of winded is equal in every way to a level of exhaustion. You move along the exhaustion track, but keep track of how many of your exhaustion levels come from being winded. If you reach 6 exhaustion levels due to being winded you don't die, but instead fall unconscious.

As long as you are conscious to do so, you can remove a level of winded by spending a full round doing nothing other than regaining your wind. Any effect that removes exhaustion levels can also remove levels of winded, but reduce your exhaustion levels first.

At your option you can exceed the normal limit of one use of Heroic Effort per short rest, but each additional time you use it you gain a level of exhaustion rather than a level of winded.

Additional Fighting Style

At 10th level, you can choose a second option from the Fighting Style class feature.


From 18th level, unseen forces gather to shield you when you are injured. After you take damage from any source the next attack roll made against you before the end of your next turn has disadvantage or if you make a saving throw before you are attacked that saving throw is rolled with advantage instead.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

5e: The Long Business of Living—Racial Variants for Dwarves, Elves, and Humans

Historically, the Dungeons & Dragons game has had two longer-lived core races: dwarves and elves. Not only are the members of these races able to live to far riper years, but the youth of each respective race matures at a slower rate, not to be considered an adult until they're far older than a grown human. A dwarf can live until around 350, only being treated an adult after age 50. An elf can live for the better part of a millenia and is treated as an adult at age 100.

Logic would suggest that even relatively young adventurers of these races have still been around for a while and have had time to pick up a variety of skills and tricks. The 5e rules support that concept, sort of. Elves for instance get weapon training while Dwarves of all types are made proficient with weapons, tools, and knowledgeable about stonework.

The problem here, of course, is that the game allows for no variety. In the worlds of D&D, all elves and dwarves apparently have weapons training, and while all dwarves may not be stone masons (they can also craft weapons or brew beer, so take that typecasting!) they all definitely know a lot about masonry.

Perhaps this is okay in your world. Maybe, for instance, all elves and dwarves may go through a period of mandatory military service between childhood and adulthood, or are trained in weapons skills as a matter of course so as to defend settlements in an emergency.

Personally, I would prefer for the dwarven and elven characters in my world to display a bit more variety. I'd like their racial traits to reflect extra skills, or perhaps personal hobbies, picked up in addition to those granted by the character's background—representing the fact that characters of these races have more background.
For some reason, bonus skills as a racial feature is the province of one of the races with the shortest lives, humans (or at least, the variant human), as well as half-elves, because of their human blood. There's not really a decent justification for that, beyond the metagame fact that it's hard to come up with interesting racial features for humans when they are, in essence, the baseline against which all other races are measured. This is explained away with some balderdash about humans being somehow more adaptable, versatile, and ambitious than other races. But is it actually a feature of human blood rather than culture? The half-elf seems to imply this is so. Otherwise, why would a half-elf raised among elves be so much more skillful than their elven family and friends?

Below I offer some alternatives for those who're interested in shaking things up.

Skilled Dwarf Variant

  • Dwarven Cleverness. Due to your lengthy adolescence and your slow ageing, you have more time in your life to pick up knowledge. Choose either one or two of the following features:
    • Dwarven Combat Training (as PHB).
    • Stonecunning (as PHB).
    • Proficiency with your choice of any one tool.
  • Optional Bonus Skill. If you choose only one Dwarven Cleverness feature, you gain proficiency in one skill of your choice.

Skilled High Elf Variant

  • Elven Experience. Due to your prolonged youth and your exceptionally slow ageing, you have time to dabble in and even master a variety of skills that interest you. Choose either one or two of the following features:
    • Cantrip (as PHB).
    • Elf Weapon Training (as PHB).
    • With Age Comes Wisdom (described below).
  • Optional Bonus Skill. If you choose only one Elven Experience feature, you gain proficiency in one skill of your choice.

Skilled Wood Elf Variant

  • Elven Experience. Due to your prolonged youth and your exceptionally slow ageing, you have time to dabble in and even master a variety of skills that interest you. Choose either one or two of the following features:
    • Elf Weapon Training (as PHB).
    • Mask of the Wild (as PHB).
    • With Age Comes Wisdom (described below).
  • Optional Bonus Skill. If you choose only one Elven Experience feature, you gain proficiency in one skill of your choice.

Skilled Dark Elf Variant

  • Elven Experience. Due to your prolonged youth and your exceptionally slow ageing, you have time to dabble in and even master a variety of skills that interest you. Choose either one or two of the following features:
    • Drow Weapon Training (as PHB).
    • Drow Magic (as PHB).
    • With Age Comes Wisdom (described below).
  • Optional Bonus Skill. If you choose only one Elven Experience feature, you gain proficiency in one skill of your choice.

Optional Elf Trait - With Age Comes Wisdom

Provided you spend an action to think about the best way to undertake an ability check, if you roll that ability check before the end of your next turn you may do so with advantage.

If you're using the above variants to support the idea that longer-lived races have more time to experiment with a wider variety of skills, you may wish to restrict humans from getting similar mechanical benefits. The simplest solution is to simply prohibit the variant human at your table. Yet since +1 to all ability scores is about the blandest possible racial choice, here's a new human variant that you could offer instead of the variant in the PHB.

Determined Human Variant

  • Ability Score Increase. Two different ability scores of your choice increase by 1.
  • Human Determination. Humans thrive and spread throughout the world in spite of their disadvantages because, as a species, they seem unable to accept their limits.
    • You have six determination dice, which are d4s. When you spend determination, you decide how many dice you want to roll and roll them all at once, adding their results together.
    • Whenever you make an attack roll, an ability check, or saving throw but fail to beat the target armor class or DC, you can roll one or more of your determination dice and add the result to your total.
    • You can also roll one or more determination dice after you have been hit by an attack to reduce the attacker's roll by the total of the determination dice you roll.
    • Determination affects the final result of a roll, not the natural roll on the d20. Therefore, you cannot turn your own attack into a critical hit, nor can you turn an attacker's critical hit into a normal attack (though you can make it miss).
    • You regain expended determination points when you finish a long rest.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

GM Advice: Lessons Video Games Can Teach Us.

Lately I've been playing two video games: Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Mass Effect: Andromeda. This isn't a review of either game, as this blog isn't the place for that. Suffice it to say that I think they are both good games, albeit each with its own flaws. However, there are valuable lessons that can be drawn from both these games—and RPG games in general—and applied to our tabletop campaigns. Please note that mild spoilers about both these games and the original Mass Effect trilogy are interspersed throughout this article.

Choices Matter, but it's not Always Wrong to Railroad

That subtitle should have come with a trigger warning, huh? There are those of you that had to stop reading this to clean up the drink you just spat at your screen.

"Railroading", or the practice of forcing the PCs down one particular path rather than giving them a choice, has become a dirty word synonymous with bad DMing. Yet the reality is, all games railroad to some extent.

For all that video games like Mass Effect have choices, none of those choices ultimately change the direction of the game. The player is still inexorably drawn further into the conflict of the Citadel species against the Reapers and their agents. Even an open world like Elder Scrolls: Skyrim still has a main storyline that players will ultimately have to conclude.

"But tabletop RPGs don't have the same limitations as video games," you might argue. And that's both true and untrue. Of course players have a lot more freedom in a tabletop RPG. But they still have a plot that constrains them. If your campaign revolves around defeating an ancient evil, then the PCs have no choice in that matter: unless they die before the end of the campaign, they're going to have to work towards that goal and ultimately defeat the ancient evil. If the adventure you have planned for a particular session involves the PCs getting lost in a haunted wood, then trees and ghosts are all your players can expect from that session.

The dirty truth is that every plan the DM brings to the table is a railroad if they make any effort at all to keep the party's actions in line with the plan. And if you don't intend to do that, there's no point planning in the first place. I've known DMs who insist that games should be about complete player freedom. All that happens in these games is that the PCs trample all over everything the DM plans, and the DM ends up improvising every session. Less prepared is generally less fun, in my experience.

Railroads are at the heart of the game, and the truth is most players even want them. There are plenty of players out there who are more comfortable taking a passive role in the game, and even players who crave freedom still generally want an epic plot for their heroes to struggle through.

Ideally, of course, you try to railroad with some finesse and keep some player agency intact. This is where the "Choices Matter" part of the title comes in. While you can (and have to) railroad in broad strokes, the fine details need to give your players actual choices.

Perhaps the players can choose route A or route B, but either way they'll ultimately get to C. The key here is that route A and route B should be meaningfully different, and the players should have access to some information that helps them make the choice. If one route takes the party into the hunting grounds of a basilisk, and the other through a village of cannibals, then the choice matters. But unless the players have some way of knowing or guessing what is down each path, the choice isn't a meaningful one, it's the equivalent of flipping a coin. Instead, present them with clues.

Imagine that the party are stopping at an inn the night before, and swap stories with some of the locals. One trader tells them:
  • "There are only two roads through the forest."
  • "People generally don't risk the Eastern road. It's shorter, but lots of people go missing. And those as have made it through tell of terrible statues along the road that look like folk frozen in horror."
  • "The West road is longer, but safer, and there's a village. The folk there are slightly weird, if you ask me. A little too involved in each other's business, and a little too curious about everyone passing through. Sort of clannish. Generous types though, always offering to let me stay overnight. But like I said, they're a bit overbearing and I'm a private person, so I prefer to camp on the road."
Now the players have enough clues to know that something dangerous lurks on the East road and to put together it might be a creature that can turn people to stone. They also know that there are no obvious dangeros on the West road, but you've put it out there that there's something off about the people the party will encounter there. That might not be enough to put the party off from going in that direction, but it might prompt them to make further enquiries with the locals. They might for instance meet someone whose relative went that way, and never returned.

Of course, the players might decide to go through the forest, but if you don't want that to be a likely option then you've probably already come up with an explanation for why that's a bad idea.

Where railroading is inappropriate is when it takes away player agency from important story decisions. If the PCs don't want to make an alliance with an evil warlord, don't force them to do it. Instead, practice "good" railroading, by coming up with a new way for them to get back on track with the plot. Maybe there's some other faction to ally with or power the PCs can acquire to make up for the soldiers lost when they refused the warlord's alliance?

Make Choices Meaningful

The Mass Effect trilogy had a story that roughly played out in the same way no matter what you did, but had specific junctures where your choice would have meaningful impact. The effect of that choice might not be fully understood during the game in which it happened, but resonates throughout the series. For instance, depending who you let die in Mass Effect, either Kaidan or Ashley (the survivor) makes a brief appearance in Mass Effect 2. Both are fully programmed into Mass Effect 3 as potential party members, but only the one who did not die previously is accessible during your playthrough. In Mass Effect: Andromeda there are quite a few similar choices, though it remains to be seen which of those will become significant throughout the series.

What do I mean by "make choices meaningful", when tabletop gaming is pretty much all choices? The PCs make choices all the time. Most of the time, they're choices you haven't even planned for because you never foresaw the direction the PCs would decide to take. You might not be able to do it for every choice, but it's still worthwhile trying to make some of these choices matter in the long run. What's important is to identify when the result of a choice has introduced something interesting such as a named NPC, group, or potential plot seed. Such additions don't have to last beyond the adventure in which they arise. But whenever you add something significant to your world, or the PCs make what feels like a significant choice despite it being unscripted, it's worth making a note of it. You can refer back to these notes later and use them as seeds for future world building and adventure ideas. The world of your game will feel enriched and more alive if you can incorporate recurring elements.

Let's say you planned a heist adventure where the party need to break into the mansion of a powerful mage to acquire a powerful McGuffin, but it's well known that no one has ever successfully broken into his mansion. You expect your PCs to case the building, maybe try to get close to the mage and get invited in, or possibly make some enquiries into the mage's activities in the present or even in the past, back when the mansion was being built. They might even go looking for thieves who have attempted the task and failed (but survived), assuming that each one might have a hint about at least one of the barriers, if not how to solve it, at least to clue them in to what it is. What you didn't expect or prepare for was your party deciding to get in with the local thieves guild, because they guess that the leaders of the guild might have their own reasons for wanting to get into the mage's vault and might be persuaded to offer whatever assistance they can if the PCs are willing to make a trade. You decide that's a great idea and roll with it, and your campaign takes a short detour as you spend a few sessions on the party taking on jobs to convince the guild leaders of their usefulness.

After your campaign moves on from these events, and possibly from the city in which the party met the guild, you have no more need for them. But it will make your world feel more alive if rather than being a throwaway concept, the thieves guild reappears. Perhaps they turn out to be a branch of a larger guild, and when the party arrives in a new city they are approached by guild agents offering them work? Or maybe the party's connection to the thieves guild is figured out by a rival organisation, who come after them.

As for choices you prepared for, you should always plan to make them meaningfully impactful or they wouldn't be much of a choice. In the example above, let's say that another option was to try to persuade the mage to loan the party the McGuffin, but they didn't want to risk his saying "no" and decided to steal it. A powerful mage has ways of finding out who they are (scrying for the stolen item, for one), and can either come after the thieves personally or send agents to deal with them. Whereas if they talk to the mage, there might be two outcomes: they fail to persuade him, in which case they need to find another alternative to the McGuffin or attempt to steal it in the face of heightened security; or they do persuade him to their cause, in which case they have the beginnings of a powerful ally, but need to continue to keep his faith.

This example is actually made up of a choice you prepared for and an improvised option combined. To make these decisions resonate in your world, have the potential consequences reflect both choices. For instance, if the PCs steal the item with the help of the thieves guild, the mage might get wind of that and wreak a vengeance on the guild. The PCs might be far away when they hear rumours of the mass slaying of the thieves guild of the city they were recently in. They might even run into a survivor of that massacre. In this situation you might plan ahead, seeding that rumour into a session several weeks before you plan to have the mage come after the thieves themselves.

Big, Open Worlds aren't Always The Most Fun

The trend in modern video games is to make bigger and bigger worlds. Developers boast of how large the world map is, and how open to free exploration. But bigger doesn't always mean better. These huge worlds are often characterised by vast stretches with little to do between locations of actual interest, and those points of "interest" often amount to little more than a collectible, tedious fetch quest, or the ever-irritating tower climb to reveal the region. Also in the quest to make games seem bigger, it's now common practice to offer DLC in the year following the game's release, although this largely comes across like a cash grab for content which many would argue should have been in the game at release.

Sadly, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild's open world, while beautiful to explore, is probably the worst example I've ever seen for this. In fact, it's a completionist's hell: there are 900 korok to find, 120 shrines (which usually involve a short set of puzzles or a mini-boss fight), plus side quests, most of which are of course the dreaded fetch quest. There's a metric butt-ton of gathering you'll need to do if you want to upgrade your gear. And if you complete the story, you can start a new sidequest that asks you to defeat 84 boss monsters all over the world map.

Meanwhile, Mass Effect: Andromeda has multiple open world landscapes each with dozens of points of interest. They're all barren hellscapes of one type or another: there are two deserts, a snowscape (so, you know, another type of desert), an a moonscape. Unsurprisingly, the most interesting open world you get to explore is the jungle, and it's also the smallest and the only one that doesn't require you to drive around in the vehicle (which isn't as bad as the MAKO from Mass Effect, but honestly isn't much more fun). And these open worlds feel dead, not just because they are generally deserts but because Bioware have given them no life: great swathes between points of interest are interrupted only by repetitive encounters with enemy forces or the native wildlife. And that wildlife, hoo boy: the same four or five creatures appear on all planets, even though that makes no sense whatsoever. The only reason you have to explore these planets fully is to complete all of the side quests which, you guessed it, are largely tedious fetch quests.

This is straying into review territory now, so I'll corral my thoughts and get to the point: big open worlds aren't always what they're cracked up to be. In the tabletop RPG, this means three things.

Firstly, not all games need to be epic journeys across massive worlds to defeat an ultimate evil. Campaigns that are more intimate in scope can be equally if not more satisfying. If a game is exclusively set in and around a single city, it will have joys of its own: including extensive development of local NPCs and greater attachment between the PCs and the NPCs and locations around them, potentially increasing player engagement with the setting.

Secondly, if your world is a big one, allowing your PCs to venture anywhere at a whim when you haven't planned for it can lead to a dull session. This goes back to my first point about railroading. And you need to be aware that this is a real risk if you give your players complete freedom, because planning for every eventuality in such a big open world is an impossible ask. I run an exploration game myself, and I usually compromise on this point: when I don't already know exactly how my party will be spending their session, I'll email my players between games and lay out some of their options. Then I'll ask for them to vote on what they want to do. Based on that, I plan my next session and it's expected that the PCs will find IC reasons to go in the direction voted for.

Thirdly, there is only so much content you can generate for a campaign. A big world can feel empty compared to a campaign set in a city, for example, because you'll create roughly the same amount of content for each but the scale of the city campaign is so much smaller. Because of this, it's important if you do go for a large scale campaign that each "point of interest" actually is interesting and not too much time is spent on the bits in between. It's worth glossing over two weeks of boring travel to get to the next exciting location. In my campaign, the first time the PCs travel to a new place I generally have a few encounters and challenges along their way. If they come that way again in future, we'll generally time skip and assume they either avoid or overcome the dangers along the way unless there's an important reason not to.

Make Rewards Matter

In Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, each new power and many of the items you eventually gain unlock new areas of the game. You won't want to venture into the cold mountains without a potion against the cold or set of warm clothing. Similarly, you can't go up Death Mountain unless you're magically protected from the heat. Once you're up there, you can buy heat resistant armour from the Gorons. There's similar clothing that will keep you cool in the Garudo desert. Bomb arrows will make it easier to break some barriers that would have been tricky just using regular bombs, and fire arrows let you set things alight when you can't otherwise reach them.

In Breath of the Wild there are actually often several solutions to a problem, so many times you can find a way even with suboptimal tools, but this type of design was even clearer in past Legend of Zelda titles. In every area you would encounter barriers you simply couldn't get past until you earned some later item, and only then could you return to claim whatever treasure you'd left behind.

This is an approach I think can be valuable in a tabletop RPG when handing out magical items or other physical rewards to your PCs. With a little thought, treasure you hand out can be more than just a reward unto itself. It can be a gift that keeps giving to your game. For this to work, you'll have to hand out items that have obvious applications or that you think could be used creatively, then occasionally work into your adventures areas where those items could be used in fun ways.

It's not something I've particularly been doing up until now, but I would like to start! For instance, I gave my party a decanter of endless water a while back. Wouldn't it be fun to include some puzzles they could solve or bypass using their source of endless water? Or what if I were to borrow a trick from Legend of Zelda and hand out some exploding arrows, then several weeks later present a combat encounter in a cavern, and describe some of the monsters as standing underneath a large stalactite. If they remember about the arrows, a sneaky sniper might be able to use one to bring that stalactite down, crushing those monsters and making the subsequent encounter easier—though with a newly created large area of difficult terrain.

In Conclusion

So there you have it: three lessons I've taken from video games. What are some other lessons you've learned from video games or other forms of media?

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

5e: Races of Osse — The Woaven

The Woaven

The woaven are an aberration of a nature, a race in which it is normal to have two entirely unique forms linked by a single soul. One of their bodies normally resides in the Dreamtime (see Races of Osse: The Ekidan for a description of the Dreamtime) , a realm to which they possess an unusually close link. Yet the Woaven have mastered the ability to manifest their second form in the material plane for brief intervals, or to tap into some of its unique strengths.

Though it may seem a wonderful thing to have two bodies that can act independently, the ability is as much a curse as a blessing. A soul halved is a soul weakened, and a woaven’s two halves are less resilient than any other race’s whole. Furthermore, harm to one half of the woaven invariably has consequences for the other half. Still, there are advantages too. A woaven lives their entire life seeing with two sets of eyes, acting with two sets of limbs, and they are therefore never alone. They always have a like-minded, unquestioningly loyal ally to back them up - even when that ally is their own self.

The woaven are mostly found in Osse’s South-Western region, eking out an existence on the plains and among the canyons at the edge of the arid zone. They survive in fairly hostile conditions thanks to their second halves, which take animalistic forms typical to Dream Spirits, and can assist in efforts to scavenge and hunt in the desert environs the Woaven live in.

One half of a woaven is a rangy humanoid with dusky grey skin, a hairless body, and yellow eyes. This half typically wears a drab hooded cloak to protect against the sun, and little else other than a loincloth underneath.

The other half takes an animalistic form, which varies by woaven tribe. These forms do not completely correspond to a single animal, and the woaven believe them to mirror archetypal forms, of which they share the beliefs of the ekidan. Both woaven and ekidan therefore consider this race to be uniquely touched by the Dreamtime.

Woaven generally do not speak of the secret curse that is said to plague their people. Their histories tell of damned individuals who have a second half that is unspeakable, a hazy entity of indiscernible shape—or rather, a shape that the mind quickly slides over and attempts to forget. These woaven have been touch by The Other, an entity of malevolence and destruction that rampages unchecked through the Dreamtime. Thoughts of destruction plague such Woaven, and their innermost desires are often acted out by their second form before they have a chance to have second thoughts. According to the legend when such a cursed woaven is born to a tribe they are usually killed at birth, but these are cautionary tales which reveal the fate of those who ignore this accepted wisdom: in such stories, sentimental parents leave the tribe to save their children. Their actions always end in tragedy, for sooner or later the child will be dream of their deaths and their dream spirit will be compelled to act this out.


Ability score increases. Your Wisdom score increases by 2.

Age. The natural life expectancy of a Woaven can be as long as 150 years. This may be in part due to their connection with the Dreaming, for it seems they benefit from especially restful slumber.

Alignment. Woaven attempt to live in harmony with the natural world, and as long as a Woaven does no harm, they are typically left to their own devices by their peers. Most Woaven are neutral.

Speed. Your base walking speed is 30ft.

Dream spirit. Your soul is split across two bodies, one that exists in the material plane and a second that normally dwells in the transitive plane known as the Dreaming or Dreamtime. You control both forms concurrently by means of a single unifying intelligence. Each Woaven's dream spiritt has a beastlike form that combines the traits of multiple mundane animals, but is as unique as their material body is from other people.

Though your second body is native to the Dreaming, you can summon it into the material plane or channel some of its power through your material body. You can do one or the other once per short rest.

Whenever you or your dream body take damage while the dream spirit is summoned or channeled, you must make a Constitution saving throw to maintain your concentration. The DC equals 10 or half the damage you take, whichever number is higher. If you fail to meet the DC, your dream spirit instantly returns to the Dreaming. If it was summoned, your dream body vanishes. If it was channeled, the effects immediately end. If you take damage from multiple sources, such as an arrow and a dragon's breath, you make a separate saving throw for each source of damage.

Summon Dream Spirit. When you do so, the dream body can appear in any space to which you have line of sight or which you are aware of within 60 feet of your location. You You can only maintain its existence while it remains within 60 feet of you. If it ever moves beyond that range, willingly or otherwise, it instantly returns to the Dreaming.
Your dream body takes the form of a Woaven Dream Spirit (see the sidebar), and the following apply:
  • While in the material plane, your dream body shares Armor Class, though unmodified by your armour. Do not include your armour or any miscellaneous bonuses from mundane items, but do include the benefits of class features, spells, and magic items.
  • Your dream body does not have its own hit points. If it is damaged in the material plane, you deduct the damage from your own hit point total.
  • Your dream body is immune to Exhaustion, but is affected by Exhaustion levels your material body has earned.
Woaven Dream Spirit
Tiny dreamtouched, any alignment

Armor Class

Hit Points


20 ft., fly 20 ft., swim 20 ft.
3 (-4) 12 (+1) 14 (+2) 10 (+0) 12 (+1) 16 (+3)

Condition Immunities



darkvision 60 ft.


dreamspeak (can communicate with all entities with a language, but only within the Dreaming)


1/2 (100 XP)

Immaterial Movement.

The woaven dream spirit can move through other creatures and objects as if they were difficult terrain. It takes 5 (1d10) psychic damage if it ends its turn inside an object.


Ranged Spell Attack: +5 to hit, range 30 ft., one target. Hit: 5 (1d4 +3) psychic damage.

Wyrd Reverie (Recharge 4-6):

One creature within 10 ft. of the woaven dream spirit must make a DC 13 Wisdom saving throw, taking 8 (2d4 + 3) psychic damage and on a failed saving throw becoming the lesser dream spirit’s choice of charmed, dazed (see sidebar), or frightened.

On your turn, your dream body may move independently of your material body. If you take an action with your material body your dream body cannot do so on the same turn, and vice versa.

Additionally, either your material body or dream body can take a bonus action on your turn, but not both.

Your dream body shares your skill proficiencies, though it can only use skills when it would make sense for an animal to be able to do so.

Your bodies are two parts of a whole and each requires the other remain healthy or both will suffer the consequences. You have a single hit point total like any other character, and damage to either body reduces your hit points. Both bodies fall unconscious at the same time if you are reduced to 0 hit points, and if one body dies the other immediately perishes. Exhaustion levels are also shared between bodies.

Any spell, monstrous ability, skill use or other effect that targets the mind - such as Charmed or Frightened - applies to both bodies if it makes sense for it to do so. Physical effects such as Blinded, Deafened, Incapacitated, or Stunned apply only to the body they targeted.

Channel Dream Spirit.  Instead of summoning your dream spirit, you can briefly channel some of its nature through your material body. You may only channel your dream spirit in your Woaven body. For instance, you cannot benefit from this feature while polymorphed or using wild shape. The effect of channeling your dream spirit varies by your dream spirit's form (see subrace).

Restful Slumber.  Woaven are more in touch with their dreams than most, and the quality of their sleep is high. A Woaven can get by with only 4 hours of sleep a day, but if they manage a full 8 hours they wake feeling especially energetic and alert. When the Woaven fails any roll between waking and their next short or long rest, they can roll it again with advanage. Once the Woaven has used this ability once, they cannot use it again until they have once again slept undisturbed for 8 hours.

Subrace. Regardless of its particular physical makeup, your dream body is either Swift or Strong. Choose one of the following subraces.


Ability score increases. Your Strength score increases by 1, or by 3 when you are channeling your dream spirit.

Powerful Animal. Your dream spirit rolls Strength-based ability checks with advantage.

Tooth and claw. While channeling your dream spirit your unarmed attacks deal 1d4 damage. If they already deal 1d4 or greater damage, increase their damage by one die type instead. Additionally, when you roll a 1 on any melee damage die you may choose to reroll it. You may reroll damage from a single attack only once—you must accept any further results of 1 rolled for that attack.


Ability score increases. Your Dexterity score increases by 1, or 3 when you are channeling your dream spirit.

Graceful Animal. Your dream spirit rolls Dexterity-based ability checks with advantage.

Swift of foot. While channeling your dream spirit your walking speed increases by 5 feet. Additionally, you can jump twice as far as normal.


Ability score increases. Your Constitution score increases by 1, or 3 when you are channeling your dream spirit. Treat hit points gained due to channeling your dream spirit as temporary hit points.

Resilient Animal. Your dream spirit rolls Constitution-based ability checks with advantage.

Sturdy. While channeling your dream spirit you have advantage on saving throws against abilities that would knock you prone or force movement.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

The Peculiar Case of D&D's Built-In Prejudices

In the Fifth Edition books, you can really see a push to be more inclusive. Heroes of every ethnicity stand proud or duke it out with terrible beasts on the pages of the Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide. The Player's Handbook even explicitly acknowledges non-binary genders. Meanwhile, it's been a while since official artwork portrayed female heroes wearing chainmail bikinis and bondage outfits (this is still a huge problem in third party fantasy miniatures, however).

This is all, of course, a great thing. There is most certainly still a long way to go before the roleplaying community as a whole is a safe and inclusive environment for all, but as the first among rpgs D&D can do a great deal to push that worthy agenda.

In the fictional worlds of D&D, however, things are not quite as rosy. Today I want to talk about an odd peculiarity of the game. To wit, certain races and cultures in the game really don't get the respectful treatment they deserve.


Let's start with the big one. It's all in that word: "halflings". It really drives me mad! So much so that I'm grinding my teeth just over using it as a subheading in this article. But I have to, to provide the necessary context.

Halfling was another name given to hobbits in the works of JRR Tolkien. It was inherited by the race in D&D because "hobbit" could not be used for obvious legal reasons. The chain of events makes sense, and the word "halfling" does a good job of evoking what the race is.

But, I ask you to think about what this word actually means. Let's break it down into its constituent parts:


  1. being one of two equal or approximately equal parts of a divisible whole.
  2. being half or about half of anything in degree, amount, length, etc.
  3. partial or incomplete.
Note: I only included the most useful definitions for this context.
There's no ambiguity here. Half means one half of a whole. Smaller than. Lesser.


  1. A suffix of nouns, often pejorative, denoting one concerned with (hireling; underling), or diminutive ( princeling; duckling).
I think we can be confident that in this case, the suffix is being used purely in the diminutive sense. The meaning, once again, is essentially "less than whole".

It's worth noting also that halfling is derived from the Scots "hauflin", which alternately means either " A half-grown boy, adolescent youth; often applied to a lad engaged in farm work" or "a half-witted person".

So, from all this we can derive that halflings are called halflings because they are half the size of a human, they are less than a human, they are not whole.

Let that sink in for a moment. Can you possibly imagine a single scenario where a race of people would choose a name for themselves which implied they were somehow substandard compared to other races? It seems ludicrous.

The Forgotten Realms sort of resolved this, but not really, by giving halflings an alternative name: the Hin. However, it was always treated as just another option, not the default. And it seems to be a detail the significance of which has faded in any case—despite the Realms being the official setting of Fifth Edition, no mention of this fact appears in the Player's Handbook.

The only logical context for the word "halfling" is as a racial slur. The Hin should show outrage any time someone refers to them as a "halfling" within their hearing. They do in my games.

In your own settings, I encourage you to invent your own name for this race!


This is a similar case. We already know "-ling" is diminutive, so that's our first red flag. But what about "tief"? I suspect this comes from the German "tief", meaning "deep" or "low", in reference to their fiendish origins.

Before the fourth edition, tieflings were the children of humans and fiends. They were extremely rare half-blooded folk, not a race unto themselves. Fifth Edition has reverted to this interpretation of the tiefling. While the name does reflect the prejudice of other races, at least it fits their position in the lore of the game.

If you play fourth edition, then bear in mind that tieflings have been re-purposed into a whole race, not just infernal-blooded descendents of humans. Why should a proud people choose a name for their race that implies in any way that they are less than whole? That suffix "-ling" really has to go.


We're moving on from races now. Barbarians are perhaps one of my biggest pet peeves in the game, and it all stems from that word choice. Let's look at the definition:


  1. a person in a savage, primitive state; uncivilized person.
  2. a person without culture, refinement, or education; philistine.
  3. (loosely) a foreigner.
Have you ever considered how odd it is that the name of every other class in the game says something about a character's skill set, while all "barbarian" says about your character is that they're an outsider and a frothing loon?

The implications of a character being a barbarian matter, too: A barbarian is by definition "uncivilised", coming from a "savage" tribe. The entire flavour text of the Player's Handbook assumes this. The skill choices available to the class are based on it. One of their two archetypes essentially enforces it.

But where is it written in the laws that govern this world, the fantasy world, or any world, that the only people capable of flying into a berserk rage are people from the barbarian tribes? Surely there's conceptual room for a knight with a terrible fury burning within? There must be potential in any warrior to stoke the fires of their rage?

Barbarian is also an unfortunate term which really ought to be retired in any context. If you call someone a barbarian, you're saying they're uncivilised, and in so doing you're placing your own sense of civility above their own cultural beliefs. "Barbarian" is therefore yet another word that implies "less than".

There is a far better word to describe what this class is and what it does, all while removing the negative connotations and opening the class up to wider conceptual possibilities.

Call it a Berserker.

Well, those are the three big ones. Can you think of any I missed? Let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

5e: Races of Osse — The Ekidan

My current Fifth Edition campaign is called Adventures in Osse, a rather unimaginative but to the point title. As I've mentioned before the campaigns of my tabletop group take place in a version of Toril (the world of the Forgotten Realms) that has been altered by the events and consequences of multiple past campaigns.

Now, this world has a history older than my membership in the group. So when I offered to run the next game, I was looking at a world with a lot of existing lore which was a fairly intimidating prospect. There was also the fact that I like building my own worlds. I appreciate the benefits of a shared world with an evolving history, but I didn't want to feel too beholden to what had come before. My solution was to look outside of the Forgotten Realms. In the end I settled on Osse, a continent to the South-West, clearly intended to parallel Australia, which had essentially no established lore either officially or in the group's own canon. This gave me a place to start fresh with my own ideas and not concern myself too much with what had happened in past games, most of which I'd not even been part of.

To go along with the new continent I've established a few new races, and I thought I'd share them with you.

But first I should explain the Dreamtime, because this transitive plane is intrinsically tied to the continent of Osse and its natives. I introduced this plane to the game because the Aboriginal concept of the Dreamtime was simply too interesting not to include in a fantasy setting that takes a large part of its inspiration from Australia, its myths, and its cryptids. Additionally, the Forgotten Realms doesn't have an adequate home for dreams. The only thing I could find was that Dendar the Night Serpent, a primordial concerned with the domain of dreams and nightmares, canonically lives on the Fugue Plane (the place mortal go to be judged when they die). Associating dreams with death in this way doesn't do it for me, so I knew I wanted the Dreamtime to be its own place. I determined it should be a transitive plane that connects all dreamers from all places and all times (it would therefore theoretically be possible to use the Dreamtime to travel between planes, at least, or maybe even between realities/settings). It is a plane that hasn't really been discovered or explored by the people of Faerûn, but it is well known in Osse. Why would that be? I decided that Osse had a particularly strong connection to the plane of Dreams because the continent had formed around the corpse of a primordial connected to dreams who was slain by the god Auppenser during the Dawn War. There's a little bit more to that story, but I'd better not share it since some of my players may be reading this post.

Anyway, a description of the Dreamtime follows. After that, our first Ossian race: the Ekidan!

The Dreamtime

The Dreamtime, also known as the Dreaming or the Plane of Dreams, is the place where every creature's mind goes when they dream. It is a purely metaphysical space and linear time has no meaning there. Indeed, no rules apply in the Dreamtime except the ones the minds within it impose. It touches on all minds in all places, so is near-infinite. In theory, if you could enter it with your physical body it could be used to travel between planes or even dimensions, but more likely the traveller would just get lost and never return. The Dreamtime is described in relation to the "waking world" below, a term of convenience to describe all other planes.

The Dreamtime borders the waking world, and in some respects these strange shores are its mirror—visitors to the Dreamtime who are conscious of their visit often discover that the place where they enter bears a resemblance to the physical location where they fell asleep. In truth, this is merely because the mortal mind seeks the familiar, and grounds itself in the known. An entrant could just as easily emerge in a scene from a memory, or even a future hope. The mirror world phenomenon is particularly common when multiple people enter into the Dreamtime as a group via magic, or guided via a shaman. The echo of reality is something all their minds can cope with and seek out. Yet even when the Dreamtime's shallows resemble a world which a person knows, the mirror is an imperfect one in which dimensions, perspectives, and the passing of time are not to be trusted. If you enter the Dreamtime while on a mountainside you may still be on a mountainside when you "wake" in the Dreamtime, but the mountain may be impossibly tall, so that you are unable even to see the ground. If you enter it while in a small grove of trees, you might enter the Dreamtime in an enormous, alien forest. Consequently, little of what you see in the Dreamtime can be trusted to indicate a true state of affairs in the waking world.

Some locations in the waking world leave particularly strong impressions on the Dreamtime. These are places where many have slept and dreamed, places and times that have oft been the subject of dreams, and often a combination of both. Great cities, ruins of ancient empires, and the sites of legendary battles are examples of places which might warp the fabric of the Dreatime. A dreamer in such a place might find their dreams drawn into the dreams and nightmares of others who live or dreamed of this place, whether they be from the past, present or future. A conscious visitor may even be able to learn something about the location's past, future, or even secrets of its present through the imprints powerful or common recurring dreams can leave as echoes on the landscape.

The Dreamtime has its own native inhabitants - the archetypal beings that are the subject of Osse's animistic tradition, as well as other creatures known to live in (or feed off of) dreams. Furthermore, other creatures from the waking world may be met in the Dreamtime, if they too are sleeping. When they are not sleeping, it might be possible to meet a past or future version of themselves who is. Any of these creatures can harm a visitor. Typically, someone merely dreaming will wake up before anything fatal happens—an instinctual reaction to actual danger. However, anyone visiting the Dreamtime by artificial means is vulnerable and can actually die. Sometimes, a regular sleeper's body will not recognise the danger, and they may also die in the Dreamtime. To people in the waking world, these unfortunates appear to have died in their sleep.

It is possible to visit the Dreamtime while remaining conscious of one's visit there. The most common method used by shamans in Osse is to alter their state of consciousness before sleeping, making them simultaneously more aware of their dream surroundings and more receptive to the signs and portents in the dream world in which they find themselves. To achieve such a receptive state, shamans brew a herbal tea that can induce temporary sleep and force entry into the Dreamtime. They also manufacture a rare magic item, Dreamdust, which allows a visitor access to the Dreamtime for 24 hours. That's 24 hours in the waking world, not in the Dreamtime - time is fluid in the Dreamtime, who knows how much or how little can happen there during this period. The visitor's body is vulnerable in the waking world, where they appear to be in a very deep sleep.

The Dreamtime can also be visited when in a near-death state. Shamans without the knowledge of safer methods may practice self induced asphyxiation or similar methods to gain entry to the Dreamtime. It goes without saying this is very dangerous. They would usually do it while an apprentice is around to care for their body.

The visitor to the Dreamtime can, if they learn how, exhibit control over the mutable realm, just as they might control a conscious dream. They could fly, for instance, travelling further and far faster than they ever could on foot. However they must always be wary, for it is easy to lose one's way and never return home. There are also many dangers. If the visitor finds themselves in another creature's dream, that creature's subconscious is a much more powerful force in the dream than the visitor. Some creatures also remain conscious of their dreams and can manipulate them at will, and will gladly prey on a hapless interloper. Finally, there are the Dreamtime's natives, the so-called Dream Spirits, and other powerful creatures of dream and nightmare such as the primordial Dendar. No matter how powerful the shaman, they should not attempt to challenge such a creature in the realm over which they have dominion.

When visited by a conscious mind the Dreamtime can be split into two parts—the Shallows, and the Deep Dream. Neither are literal places. The Shallows simply refers to the point of entry, whatever dreamscape the entrant discovers themselves in. From there, a visitor may choose to seek out other places and dreams, but doing so is extremely difficult and dangerous. The Dreamtime is an infinite place of infinite dreams, and does not necessarily obey any known rules of geography or geometry. A shaman might enter the Dreamtime while sleeping next to a loved one, and yet still have difficulty in finding their partner's dream, because their dreams are not nearby. Nearby is a concept with no meaning. It is somewhat easier to find a person or a place that is well known to the seeker, but by no means a guarantee. Venturing out from the Shallows into the infinite fugue and kaleidoscopic dreamscapes of the Deep Dream is a dangerous prospect, from which many wanderers never return. It is especially dangerous if the visitor's body has been left behind in the waking world, for the traveller in dream's mind may never find its way back to where their body awaits.

Visitors to the Dreamtime can communicate more easily than they might in the waking world - talking here transcends language barriers. Their will to make the other party understand, and the other party's willingness to understand, makes meaning more readily understood. Despite the potential dangers the experienced shamans of Osse's disparate tribes often visit the Dreamtime for meets and negotiations.

According to the animistic belief of Osse's natives, the Dreamtime is actually the most real of realities, and everything in the waking world is a pale echo, one of the dreams created there. Everything about the waking world has come about as a result of the past, present and future actions of the archetypal beings, otherwise known as Dream Spirits, who reside in the Dreamtime. Their actions are continuously creating the waking world as we know it. The archetypal beings often resemble amalgamations of animals found in nature—yet they are the true forms, and the animals of the waking world are imperfect echoes of the original archetypal form.

The Ekidan

The ekidan are humanoids who organise themselves into tribes and have adapted to most areas of the continent - tending to dwell in underground burrow complexes, rather than constructing homes above ground. Their villages can be found anywhere from bushland and woodlands, mountains, sandy plains, heath, grasslands, semi-arid barrens and desert.

The ekidan consider themselves native to Osse. This may or may not be true, for the aearee-quor claim they created or at least artificially evolved the ekidan race. If the aearee did create the ekidan, they have lost interest in them, and rarely interfere with the ekidan tribes. It is possible that they are simply watching them as part of some grand experiment.

Ekidan are very spiritual and believe in a form of animism, telling stories of a place beyond time and space in which the past, present, and future exist wholly as one. In this world view, every event leaves a record in the land. Everything in the natural world is a result of the past, present and future actions of the archetypal beings, who reside in the Dreamtime and whose actions are continuously creating the world.

In their dreams, in an altered state, or at their death, the ekidan claim to visit this dream plane, and even to commune with its inhabitants.

An ekidan is covered in coarse fur, and has a snout-like nose. In some tribes this snout is quite long and pronounced, appearing beaklike, while in others it is far shorter. From their head down to between their shoulder blades the ekidan is grows spines rather than hair. These grow very long and are supple, curving down behind the ekidan’s back rather than sticking upright. Traditionally, these spines are often tied together by dyed cords.

While they have much in common with mammalian humanoids, they curiously reproduce by laying eggs, like a bird.

Ekidan Traits

Ability score increases. Your Constitution score increases by 2, and your Wisdom score increases by 1.
Age. Ekidan live for about 70 years, reaching adulthood at around 12 years old.
Alignment. Ekidan believe in the natural order and strictly abide by the rules and rituals of their belief system, which provides both their Lore and their law, so they are often Lawful Neutral.
Size. Ekidan range from under 5 to just under 6 feet in height, and tend to have stocky builds. Your size is Medium.
Speed. Your base walking speed is 30 feet.
Darkvision. Ekidan dwell in underground burrows. They therefore have superior vision in dark or dim conditions. You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as it it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. You can't discern colour in darkness, only shades of grey.
One with the land. You have proficiency in the Survival skill.
Dreamer. The strange realities of the Dreaming are an ever-present truth in your life, and you therefore are used to the odd and eerie. You gain advantage on saving throws against being frightened.
Ekidan's endurance. Ekidan are hardy folk who are able to dwell in all manner of harsh environments. You gain advantage on saving throws against exhaustion.
Burrower. Ekidan have clawed hands which they use to dig through earth to make their burrows. You have a burrowing speed of 5 feet, which you can use to move through sand, earth, mud, or ice.
Claws. Your unarmed attacks deal 1d4 damage. You are proficient with unarmed attacks.
Languages. Common and Ekidan.