Game Design: D&D and Other Thoughts

Three-Part Advancement

This basic idea for advancement would work for any D&D-like game where leveling, treasure or loot, and your reputation in the world matter. My idea is for one session to result in leveling up, another session to result in an improved reputation, and another session to grant you some cool loot. This might emerge from the game organically – if there isn’t a chance for reputation or loot, you level, and so on. Check each of those three boxes, and then start again. You also end up leveling around every 3 sessions, which seems to be average anecdotally for D&D.

Tri-Force Tri-Stat

If I were to create a tabletop version of Zelda, I would like to use the Tri-Force as the basic ability scores or attributes. So a character would have a basic measure of Courage, Power, and Wisdom. Courage would cover fighting of course; Power would be the use of magic and magical devices, and Wisdom to know lore or to solve a problem socially, or maybe get a hint for a riddle or puzzle.

This could be mapped roughly to the Tri-Stat system used in games like Big Eyes Small Mouth, where Courage = Body, Power = Soul, and Wisdom = Mind. Otherwise, I could see challenges being resolved similarly to how they are in Satanic Panic, where you succeed if you have the proper equipment for the challenge and there is some cost if you don’t. (I’d of course have hearts at the top of your character sheet that you color in as you level up)

Leveling by Time Played

Midway between experience points and milestone leveling, I thought it might make sense to base leveling on how many hours a given player has played. XP is a reward for the player, not the character, after all, and what a CR system and recommended encounters per level amount to is a certain amount of time played. For my home group, which averages around 3 hours per session, I thought of this table.

Level Hours
2nd 3
3rd 9
4th 15
5th 21
6th 30
7th 39
8th 48
9th 57
10th 66
11th 75

Heroic Boasts as Stakes-Setting

I like the idea of boasting and swearing oaths as central to Norse stories, and I think that I would gamify this system as stakes-setting for reputation gain or loss (in a setting where reputation is life). The more boasting you do, the more reputation you stand to gain, or lose. Others can add insults or question your capability to increase the risk where maybe you’d rather they wouldn’t.

I would like for this to be a situation where it could make sense to die rather than come back in dishonor – that is, your reputation loss might be so great that if you die while adventuring, you mitigate your loss and don’t destroy the lives of your family or reduce the reputation of your entire clan or town. Then, your family, or maybe your new PC taken from your family or town, inherits your previous reputation and begins the pattern again. The important thing to build toward is that situation, irrational to people not in an honor/shame culture, that death is preferable to dishonor, or that saving face might be worth one’s life. I also would like to create the moment where a hero leaves town, having made extravagant boasts, and thinks, now I’m screwed because there’s no way I can accomplish all this. But I have to try! Hence, adventure.

Ultimately, reputation becomes a kind of currency, and it can be handled through any sort of betting/bluffing mechanic. Maybe an insult is a raise, and you have to either call the raise, re-raise, or fold, and lose the reputation you’ve placed into the ‘pot’ while boasting.

Life With An Asshole

I’d like to create a hack of the Game of Life that is a simplified version of the game itself, but you just add an Asshole, and the game becomes trying to accomplish things in Life despite the Asshole. You could have cards for dealing with the Asshole, including Avoidant, Passive-Aggressive, Assertive, and Aggressive. There could be a second spinner that tells you whether things escalate when you confront the Asshole, but otherwise it’s a game that is slightly more similar to life.

D&D 5E: Grab-Bag of Ideas

Here I’m just tossing out a handful of ideas as a way to go through the backlog of my game and setting design doc. These didn’t fit with an overall theme, so I called it a grab-bag. Feel free to grab and use!

New Spell: Duplication

  • Transmutation; V, S, M
  • 2nd Level
  • Casting Time 10 minutes
  • Range/Area Touch
  • Components V, S, M
  • Duration Instantaneous
  • You touch an object as large as a sword or shield and create a duplicate of it. The new item is made of non-magical, mundane material, meaning for example that a duplicate of an adamantine sword would be made of steel. For objects smaller than a sword or a shield, this spell can duplicate multiple objects at once. Five arrows or crossbow bolts can be duplicated at a time, for example, or two daggers. DMs can use these examples as guidelines for determining how many items can be duplicated. Note that duplicates of gold coins will be made of steel.

‘Monstrous’ Player-Characters

I would like rules allowing a player to play a character who starts with a ‘monster’ stat-block who can then level up according to their class. I would like to be able to playtest this with an interested player, but my rule of thumb for this is to take a creature’s CR and double it, and use this as their equivalent level. So, for example, an ogre would be the equivalent of a 4th level player-character. I would like to see a party composed of 4th level PCs and one ogre and see how that worked, but at a glance I think it could make sense. The ogre would have lots of hit points but fewer abilities – and maybe an ogre is a bad example. Maybe look at a gargoyle, or an adult faerie dragon for something more comparable.

Granted, the CR system in 5E is pretty broken, but I think it could maybe be a good starting-point. I don’t know if this idea would scale up, and as I said I would like to play-test it sometime. But this is what I would use as a starting-point.

Horde of the Dead God

This would work for any game, including Call of Cthulhu. But the idea is that there is a dead, mad god bound in an ancient crypt or corrupted sacred site, but the bonds are breaking and some of the god’s essence is leaking out. The result of this is that anyone who dies near the location is re-animated with a fragment of the god’s intelligence, becoming a hive-mind hoard of zombies.

For an interesting twist to use with Call of Cthulhu, imagine the ancient sacred site of a people wiped out by Conquistadors. Now backpackers and White explorers have reached the place which indigenous people know to avoid, and there have been mysterious disappearances. The investigators get involved, maybe studying the lost civilization, and have to find a way to partition the place off, killing all of the zombies, or raise the dead god back to life and deal with those consequences.

Shadow-Stealing Mirror

Somewhat inspired by A Wizard of Earthsea. A stone or mirror that steals your shadow and then animates a shadowy version of you that goes out into the world, acting out your worst impulses. The hint is that your shadow is gone, or at most tenuously visible in strong direct light. You have to go find your shadow and vanquish it, and then make amends for all that it did, before you get it back. Otherwise it just keeps re-animating and causing trouble. The Mirror was first created and given to an impulsive Prince or Princess in order to teach them humility and to deal with their own dark side.

Radiant Desert

I like the idea that deep in a desert, particularly a supernatural one like much of Dark Sun, the sun deals radiant damage during the day. Maybe you get advantage on Constitution saves against the damage if you are well-prepared with proper clothing, water, and some kind of protection against the sun. But for anyone who has ever had a bad sunburn, it is clear that the sun deals a kind of damage you don’t encounter many other places.

Non-Lethal Beatdown

I’ve already laid out how you could run D&D with non-lethal combats. I had a further thought, that players might want to incapacitate someone at the end of a combat, and so I figured that further damage could inflict levels of exhaustion on their foe. So, kind of midway between non-lethal and lethal violence.

D&D 5E: Barbarian Dervishes (Alaam)

Barbarian Archetype: Dervish

The barbarian dervish is unusual in that the changes to the base class begin with level 1. Treating it as an archetype seemed simpler than creating an entirely new class, but I know this is more of a change than would general be ‘legal’ with the rules-as-written. Still, I like the idea of a whirling dervish as a Dexterity-based barbarian option, so here it is.


In battle, you fight with fluid grace. On your turn, you can enter a trance as a bonus action. While in the throes of a trance, you gain the following benefits if you aren’t wearing medium or heavy armor:

  • You have advantage on Dexterity checks and Dexterity saving throws.
  • When you make a melee weapon attack using Dexterity, you gain a bonus to the damage roll that increases as you gain levels as a barbarian, as shown in the Rage Damage column of the Barbarian table.
  • You have resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, slashing, radiant and necrotic damage.

If you are able to cast spells, you can’t cast them or concentrate on them while in a trance.

Your trance lasts for 1 minute. It ends early if you are knocked unconscious or if your turn ends and you haven’t attacked a hostile creature since your last turn or taken damage since then. You can also end your trance on your turn as a bonus action.

Once you have entered a trance the number of times shown for your barbarian level in the Rages column of the Barbarian table, you must finish a long rest before you can enter a trance again.

Unarmored Defense

As in the PHB.

Reckless Attack

As in the PHB, except replace “Strength” with “Dexterity.”

Danger Sense

As in the PHB.

Primal Path

A dervish must choose the Dervish primal path at level 3. This primal path will provide bonuses at 3rd, 6th, 10th and 14th levels.


At level 3, as an Attack action the dervish can make a melee attack against every creature in her threatened radius. This ability can be used once per short or long rest.

Ecstatic Mind

While in a trance, you cannot be charmed or frightened. If you are charmed or frightened when you enter your trance, the effect is suspended until your trance ends. (As Mindless Rage from Path of the Berserker)

Enlightened Movement

At 10th level, if you are not wearing armor or wielding a shield, you can add your Wisdom modifier to your Armor Class while you are in the midst of a trance.

Effortless Defense

At 17th level, you can choose to succeed on a saving throw rather than roll. This ability recharges after a long rest.

D&D 5E: Reworking the Spell: Animate Objects

Animate Objects is one of those ridiculous 5E spells. If you want to deal tons of damage and can cast a 5th level spell, it’s hard to justify not taking it. Using a single casting, you can regularly deal 40+ damage each round with a bonus action by animating a swarm of darts of daggers (or, with the RAW, any tiny objects). I feel like someone didn’t check the math when they designed this spell, because it’s just not comparable to other spells. So what I’d like to do is to rework it so that it makes a bit more sense, at least to me. I’d like to redesign it so that the various size options all have advantages, but there isn’t an obvious best choice. I also decided to replace the attack roll with a spell attack roll, as that just makes a lot more sense to me.

Size HP AC Str Dex Attack
Up to 10 tiny objects 10 each 18 -4 +4 Spell attack, 1d4 (up to 10d4 or 25 avg)
Up to 5 small objects 20 each 16 +0 +2 Spell attack, 1d6+2 (up to 5d6+10 or 26 avg)
Up to 3 medium objects 30 each 13 +1 +1 Spell attack, 2d6+1 (up to 6d6+6 or 27 avg)
Up to 2 large objects 50 each 10 +2 +0 Spell attack, 2d8+2 (up to 4d8+4 or 22 avg)
1 huge object 80 8 +4 -2 Spell attack, 3d10+4 (or 21 avg)

For simplicity’s sake, no mixing and matching sizes – you choose the size objects when you cast the spell.

A huge object does the least damage on average, but it has way more hit points. 2 large objects might be the best option, as they have the second least damage but they can flank (if you use that rule) and are very tough. This is still an incredibly powerful spell, it just isn’t crazy broken in this version.

D&D 5E: The Ammit and Avanc (Alaam)


Hippopotamus hindquarters, lion forelegs, and a crocodile head and tail – the ammit is the most terrifying river predator in Alaam. It is not known whether there is only one ammit, or whether there are many. It is said that the ammit is able to weigh a person’s heart from a distance, and that it will only eat someone weighed down by wrongdoing.

Huge magical beast, unaligned.

Armor Class 16 (natural armor)

Hit Points 216 (18d12 +90)

Speed 30’, swim 50’

STR +7, DEX +0, CON +5, INT -3, WIS +1, CHA +0

Skills Stealth +7

Senses Passive Perception 15


Hold Breath. The ammit can hold its breath for an hour.


Multiattack. The ammit makes three attacks, one with its bite, one with its claws, and one with its tail.

Bite. +12 to hit, one target, 10’ reach. Hit 4d10 +7 piercing damage. The target is grappled (escape DC 19).

Claws. +12 to hit, one target, 10’ reach. Hit 2d6 +7 slashing damage.

Tail. +12 to hit, one target not grappled by the ammit, 15’ reach. Hit 3d8+7 bludgeoning. The target must make a DC 19 Strength check to avoid being knocked prone.

China Miéville’s The Scar Chapter-By-Chapter: Ch. 16, Ch ...


The avanc is a creature of legend that has been tamed by the people of Hartha in the west. They build harnesses and lure the avancs in, and then use the huge creatures to pull their ships from island to island. Avancs are different, exhibiting traits of a wide variety of aquatic and amphibious creatures – for specific avanc traits, roll on the table below. (Edit: definitely needed to be made larger, though it is still nowhere nears as large as the creature from China Mieville’s The Scar that inspired it)

Gargantuan magical beast, unaligned

Armor Class 15 (natural armor)

Hit Points 357 (24d20 +84)

Speed 40’ swim. Pulling a ship, the avanc is able to travel at ¼ speed, or about 3-4 knots, over long distances. Guiding a trained avanc requires a Wisdom (Animal Handling) proficiency check against a DC of 12.

STR +7, DEX +0, CON +6, INT -4, WIS +1, CHA -1


Avanc Trait Table (roll d10)

Each item on the table is a trait that provides a bonus or an action. Roll at least once, and more for older avanc. Avancs grow as they age, so add 2 hit dice for every rolled trait after the first.

  1. Large jaws with sharp, shark-like teeth. Add: Bite. +12 to hit, 5’ reach, 5d6+7 slashing, one target.
  2. An inner organ and ability to produce loud sounds underwater, like a goliath grouper or sperm whale. Add: Underwater Boom (5-6). Within a 30’ radius, all creatures except the avanc that are underwater must make a DC 19 Constitution saving throw. If they fail, they take 3d8 thunder damage and are deafened for one minute. If they succeed, they take half the listed damage and are not deafened.
  3. A lateral line or ampullae that provide blindsight and tremorsense underwater within 30’.
  4. Crab-like claws. Add: Claws. +12 to hit, 10’ reach, 5d4+7 slashing, one target. If hit, the target is grappled – the escape DC is 19.
  5. A long, muscular tail. Add: Swim speed becomes 60’, and this avanc is very sought-after by captains, as its speed pulling a ship increases to around 5 knots even with no wind.
  6. Venomous spines. The avanc is covered in camouflage and venomous spines. Add: Any creature making its first melee attack against the avanc in its turn must make a DC 19 Dexterity save. On a failure, they take 4d10 poison damage and are poisoned. On a success, they take half damage and are not poisoned.
  7. Venomous fangs. Add: Bite. +12 to hit, 5’ reach, one target. On a hit, the bite deals 3d8+7 piercing damage and the target must make a DC  Constitution saving throw. If the save fails, they take an additional 4d10 poison damage. If they succeed, they take half damage.
  8. Abdominal organs that can shock prey. Add: Electrify (5-6). The avanc discharges an electrical charge from organs along its ventral side. All submerged creatures within 20’ must make a DC 19 Constitution save. On a failed save, they take 5d8 lightning damage and are stunned until the beginning of their next turn. On a successful save, they take half damage and are not stunned.
  9. Highly Intelligent. Increase the avanc’s Intelligence bonus by 1. This avanc can understand simple verbal commands, but only understands Aquan.
  10. Tentacles. Add: Tentacle. +12 to hit, 15’ reach, one target at a time. On a hit, the target is grappled by the tentacle, and it is very difficult to get loose. The escape roll is DC 19 and is made with disadvantage. Tentacles each have the same AC as the avanc and ⅕ of its maximum hit points, for the purpose of cutting one’s self free.

Insight Checks in D&D 5E

Insight checks in D&D are one of the sticky wickets of 5th Edition, at least in my opinion. (Others include when to use Acrobatics vs Athletics, and when to use Investigation vs Perception). Usually it is used by players as a lie-detector, and since most of the time players roll their own dice, it is a highly reliable lie detector (in contrast to a polygraph for example, which is famously unreliable). One problem with this lie-detection function is that it is swerving into Zone of Truth’s lane, honestly. Also, simple lie-detection is incredibly difficult, even for real-world experts. All you can really figure out is perhaps what emotion a person is trying to hide, and then speculate from there.

So, I turn to the broad mechanics of PbtA to modify the use of Insight checks in D&D. Roll Wisdom (Insight), and if you succeed you may ask 2 of the following questions. +1 question for every 5 over the DC. Also, I’d hold to my house rule that other PCs can help, but only one PC rolls for the proficiency check, and usually it’s the first person to mention it unless the players have planned ahead or have time to plan.

  • What’s my gut feeling? (How many ways do our alignments align? No alignment might not mean you dislike the person, only that they give off a vibe of being very different from you)
  • Do they mean me direct harm?
  • What emotion are they feeling, primarily?
  • What emotion are they trying to hide?
  • Are they keeping a secret? (This could be an unrelated secret, but seeing the hint of one could be a reason for the PCs to keep asking questions and show interest)
  • Are they executing a sneaky plan right now? (Not a lie-detector, but this is just finding out if the creature is ‘up to something’)

There are ways these questions can overlap, of course, and I’m happy to see suggestions for better ones, but I like this way of handling this proficiency check in 5E.

Shut Up About the Need for the Church to Change…

…unless you are also bringing resources, actionable suggestions, and a willingness to work.

We Already Know

To all the think-piece writers and church strategists and consultants out there, please shut up about the need for the church to change unless you are here to help do the work. I feel like if I read one more self-absorbed armchair leader opining about the need for transformation while they themselves don’t even attend a church, much less have any helpful suggestions, I’m going to scream. If I had the time and energy to scream, which I don’t, because I work in the church in 2020.

Your blog post about the need for change was old and worn out 40 years ago when everyone was talking about the need for churches to change. We know. Most of us went to school for this stuff. We’ve read book after book, gone to classes, sought continuing education, listened to lectures and keynotes, on and on and on. We read about financing nonprofits and fundraising and transformational leadership and spiders and starfish and every other kind of nonsense. Shut up or step up.

Calling for Change without Working for Change is Cheap

You know what’s worse than nothing? Calling for change without being willing to work toward that change. Silence is literally preferable in every case. ‘Someone should do something about that’ is aggravating, passive-aggressive, and lazy. If you aren’t willing to help with the work, then you don’t have anything invested in it, and therefore your voice counts for nothing. You’re not even throwing peanuts from the cheap seats, you’re standing outside commenting on the show based on the title on the marquee.

Thoughts are cheap, and the thought that the church needs to radically adapt to a changing society and context is an old, third-hand thought.

We’re All Struggling

Part of this is that it’s just exhausting. Sometimes it hits me how much thought and effort and time and work I’ve put into working for change in the church, and if I look at my actual progress, I weep. To have someone standing on the sidelines pointing at the lack of progress like they’re Nostradamus just adds insult to injury.

Am I venting? Yes. Am I passive-aggressively commenting on articles I’ve read and thinkers I’m growing to kind of detest? Absolutely. But am I wrong?