10th Level Spells in D&D 5E

Five D&D Magic Items Every Adventurer Should Own

The Forgotten Realms, of course, has spells up to 12th level in previous setting material – but then again, Faerun is a place where you hire the neighbor kid to shovel the Rods of Wonder out of your driveway every morning (h/t my college friend Courtney). There is plenty of history of spells above the usual limit of 9th level in other settings as well, but it’s always fun to pick on Fogotten Realms. Fun for me at least.

I’ve been thinking about 10th level spells, though, and I think I have an interesting and not too overpowered way to handle them in a D&D game. What I have in mind is a set of design principles for coming up with 10th level spells that I think will balance them out but still make them interesting and valuable as something other than power-creep.

  1. 10th level spells affect the setting in some ongoing way – they are a way for powerful casters to affect the world around them
  2. 10th level spells must be found, or researched, as part of a quest
  3. A 10th level spell can be cast only once, and then it is lost. The capacity is burned out of the caster, or the gods withhold the power, or however you’d like to account for it in game
  4. 10th level spells are the way you account for magical effects in the world that aren’t otherwise accounted for in the rules.
    1. Examples: the flying citadels in Krynn used during the War of the Lance; casters who create their own demi-planes or shard realms; special, more-powerful animal companions or familiars; the wish spell, without having to worry as much about limitations because it can only ever be cast once by a particular caster; and so on.

I think these principles for 10th level spells will work well, and solve a lot of problems, including what to do with the wish spell. They also provide an explanation for magical effects that aren’t otherwise accounted for in the rules – not because everything needs a rule, but rather so that players can accomplish the things they see in the world if they become powerful enough.

What are your thoughts on 10th level spells? Is there a better way to address these questions left open in D&D 5E’s design?

Fixing Alignment in D&D

Image result for batman as every D&D alignment

It isn’t so much that alignment is broken, but that I’m not sure alignment as it is expressed in the 5E Player’s Handbook is all that helpful. It is an element of D&D that has always, and still, provokes a lot of discussion and disagreement, as well as podcast episodes and blog posts trying to explain it and account for it.

The original idea for alignment came, according to Gary Gygax, from the stories of Michael Moorcock and Poul Anderson – in the first case, a self-conscious reaction to what was seen as the good and evil binary presented by writers like Tolkien. There were only three alignments: lawful, neutral, and chaotic. The good/evil axis was added later in 1977’s Basic Set, went back and forth a bit, but has remained consistent pretty much since then.

The problem that I encounter is that this alignment system is, in brief, that it is too vague. Does “evil” mean finger-steepling, sinister and malicious intent at all times? What about a well-meaning villain? What about the idea that most villains see themselves as heroic, if not outright good? Look at Thanos – is he evil because he plans on killing trillions, or is he lawful because he wants to do so in the most fair way possible, or good because he is willing to make personal sacrifices for what he sees as the greater good, or chaotic because his plans would cause the collapse of civilizations, at least temporarily, or perhaps neutral because he seeks balance in the universe (or says he does)?

The fix for alignment, in my view, is to literally “fix” the ideas of an alignment system to more specific terms so that they are clear and can also be flexible by culture. I ran into this challenge planning for a Ragnarok campaign, called Twilight of the Gods, set in mythic dark ages Scandinavia. The Norse clearly had moral ideas, but they aren’t my moral ideas – “good” for a Norse person is quite different from “good” from my point of view and the likely points of view for the players. Killing someone because you want their silver is not “evil” for the Norse, unless you kill them through treachery or poison.

What I did for Twilight of the Gods I described in a previous post, but I’ve since taken this same idea and applied it to Dragonblade, my medieval Asia setting, and Alaam, my elemental setting inspired by Islam and Zoroastrianism. I think the best way to explain my thinking is to show where I ended up – and I’m now quite convinced that more specific alignment terms are the way to go.

Twilight of the Gods (Mythic Dark Ages/Norse)

Rather than good or evil, characters are honest or treacherous. This reflects the fact that violence was not seen as evil – the greatest moral failings included deceit and cowardice for the Norse. Honesty implies keeping promises, including promises of vengeance or oaths of support, and reinforces the idea of boasting being motivation for great deeds in order to fulfill one’s own words.

Rather than lawful or chaotic, characters are civilized or wild. This follows pretty closely to the idea of law and chaos in original D&D, but lets me highlight a theme of the setting and campaign, which was between the old gods, who are closer to the land, and independent life that is bound to the cycles of nature, compared to the Christianizing/urbanizing influence coming up from the south. It also takes the “Chaotic Asshole” alignment off the table, where players choose to be Chaotic Neutral because they want to be assholes and behave randomly. Both civilization and wilderness imply a strong set of values, both of which are rational and interesting.

Dragonblade (Heroic Medieval China/South-East Asia)

Rather than good or evil, characters are benevolent or selfish. These ideas align relatively well with my own idea of good and evil, which I think is widely shared in my culture, but are drawn more directly from the philosophies that were influential during the medieval period in China – Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Mohism and so on. The highest good is often seen as being entirely self-giving and self-negating, and the deepest evil is often seen as arising from a focus on the self above all else. This also gives roleplaying clues that are more clear, I think, than “good” or “evil.” What concerns characters in this setting is a particular kind of good or evil.

Rather than lawful or chaotic, characters are legalistic or free (committed to freedom). Like the take on good and evil above, this is similar to what is described in the Player’s Handbook, but actually quite different from what was in original D&D’s Law and Chaos. Again, these ideas are drawn directly from the philosophies in China at the time, in particular those of Laozi (Daoism) and Confucius.

Another way of looking at this alignment system is that the good/evil axis is rooted in Buddhism, and the law/chaos axis is rooted in Confucianism and Daoism. Since those are three of the most powerful influences on Chinese culture, I thought it was a pretty good fit. I also felt that whatever replaced “law” and “chaos” had to be two positive choices with a moral underpinning. I realize that boiling down Confucianism to “legalism” and Daoism to “freedom” is stupidly reductive, but hopefully the idea comes across. I’m actually not entirely satisfied with the term “legalism”, but it’s the best I have for the moment.

I like how mundane the alignments become. Chaotic Evil sounds like a lot to live up to – you have to go full Joker and watch the whole world burn. In Dragonblade, this would be Selfish Freedom, which seems a lot more common and easy to understand. Someone committed to Selfish Freedom could even be part of an adventuring party without a lot of trouble, in contrast to someone who was Chaotic Evil.

Alaam (Inspired by Arabian Nights/Islam/Zoroastrianism)

Instead of good or evil, characters are kind or cruel. Here I went with a simple, direct moral description of how one treats other people, rather than the inner morality that is more of a focus for Dragonblade above. These descriptors also fit well with the almost-fairy-tale sense I wanted to evoke of 1001 Arabian Nights. At the very least, it avoids the “But what is evil, really?” kind of question that plagues conversations about D&D’s standard alignment. (Thanos, to take my example from the beginning of this post, is clearly cruel.)

Instead of lawful or chaotic, characters are obedient or rebellious. In this case, I am drawing more from Islam, where obedience is a very high virtue. The Middle-East is also a part of the world that has had strong central authorities for a very long time – thousands of years in the real world. This alignment axis assumes that the law, that authority, makes demands on you, and you have to respond one way or another. This fits with a strong theme for Alaam, which is that of the authority of the genies who created the world, and how characters respond to that authority.

Specific Is Best

My advice to other writers and designers in the area of alignment is almost always to make it more specific. Root your alignment system in the questions you want to ask in your campaign. Fix the alignment axes to the strong themes of your setting. Alignment is often the source of disagreement, but it has a great potential to highlight aspects of a setting right from the beginning. If you want to play a Lawful Good paladin, I think that it is a distinct experience to create a character who is Honest and Civilized, or Benevolent and Legalistic, or Kind and Obedient. Those are all, to me, much more interesting than Lawful Good.

To pick another crappy alignment trope – I am of course suspicious of any player who wants to play a Chaotic Evil character. But what about Treacherous and Wild? That’s at least really interesting. Or Selfish and Free – that’s not even necessarily “evil” in the villainous sense. (Heck, that could be a Libertarian) Or Cruel and Rebellious – the option most similar to Chaotic Evil, perhaps, but still easier to understand and portray. It clearly states a relationship to other people and to whatever authorities exist in your world, and that’s a big step ahead of Chaotic Evil in my book. Or, in my games at least.

What do you think about this take on alignment? What do you think the alignment could be for your favorite setting: Middle-Earth, Westeros, Krynn, etc? 

Rethinking Small Creatures in 5E D&D

Image result for D&D size comparison 5e

I recently posted some thoughts on handling large-sized characters in 5th Edition D&D. I was also thinking about small-sized characters (and tiny, and so on). I’m certain that the decision was made for the purpose of simplicity and balance, but reading through the 5E rules I did think that too little was made of the advantages, and disadvantages, of being small. Especially small in a D&D sense, where you are shorter than 4 feet and weight maybe 50 lbs. Most halflings, and many gnomes, are smaller than my 6 year old daughter. Different build, more lean muscle mass, and so on, but still. She is not large.

In the rules as written, small creatures take up the same area on the battle map, have the same class hit dice if they have a class, etc. Small creatures with no character class have hit dice one die type smaller than medium creatures. I know that small creatures can use Acrobatics to move through the space occupied by a large creature, which is cool, and they have some weapon restrictions. They are also able to theoretically squeeze through a tiny space, whereas a medium creature can only squeeze through a small space.

Now, if I wanted much more detailed rules on size, I would just go back to 3.5 or Pathfinder. And no worries there, both are great games I’ve played many times. But what I would like are a couple of small changes that make the choice to play a small race more meaningful.

Hit Dice

I’ll start with what is likely my least popular idea – I think that PCs should follow the rule of monsters and small races’ class dice should be downgraded one step. I think that the actual effect of this would be mitigated in a number of ways. First, any PC casters who are a small race will often have one primary stat and then can easily put their second highest score into Constitution – this is especially true of sorcerers and wizards. Bards and clerics have more to worry about, on average, but can still be quite tough if they wish to be.

Stealth

I think that in general, size should be taken into account when rolling Dexterity (Stealth) – one size difference granting someone advantage on the roll. This would mean that small characters sneaking up on medium characters or larger would automatically have advantage, and it would add a house rule that would make it easier for all PCs to sneak up on ogres and giants and the like.

Cost of living

It makes sense to me to cut the cost of living for a small PC in half. They can get along with less living space, much less food, less water, and so on. Their clothes take up half the material or less, and all of their tools are small-sized, or can be. This makes a small difference, but makes sense to me.

Armor Class

Here  I’m going to just steal from Pathfinder/3.X and give small PCs a +1 to their Armor Class. They have about half the surface area to aim at, can more easily take cover, etc. This also helps do a little to balance out the loss of 1 hit point per level, on average.

Tiny PCs

This got me thinking about tiny PCs, like player-character pixies and sprites and quicklings, which sound cool. For them, I would reduce their hit dice by yet another step, also reduce their weapon damage by one die type while keeping the restrictions for small characters (being stabbed by an inch-long knife is just not that scary). I would divide their cost of living by 4 and give them advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) rolls to sneak up on small or larger creatures. Tiny intelligent creatures are also often balanced out by having super-speed or the ability to fly, like the examples above, and perhaps more innate magic than is normal. I’d want to see this in a game (someone playing a pixie, sprite, quickling, etc.) but I’d be open to the idea. They would also get an additional +1 to their AC.

Curious what I had to say about large-sized PCs? Check out that post here.

Eberron: Random Tables for Shargon’s Teeth

I’m currently running a 5th Edition game in Eberron. The PCs are sailing across the Thunder Sea, past Shargon’s Teeth, to Stormreach and Xen’Drik. Of course, bad things are happening, and it looks like they’ll end up stranded on one of the islands of Shargon’s Teeth, possibly island-hopping their way to Stormreach.

Or they’re going to defeat a Marid as a 4th level group – 5th Ed is crazy.

I like having random tables – they actually help me with creativity when I need to do something like come up with a bunch of interesting but variable islands. If all of the options on the tables are interesting to me, then what becomes interesting are the surprise interactions. I didn’t always like them, but I’ve changed in the last few years.

I’ve come up with some random tables  to use in creating islands in Shargon’s Teeth. Part of my thinking here is to treat Shargon’s Teeth kind of like different versions of Galapagos islands. At least, I’m using the Galapagos as inspiration for the Teeth (as I’m using Madagascar and New Guinea as inspiration for Xen’Drik).

First is a random table of unique elements for each island. These are the first thing you’d notice about the island, and form the core of how I describe it:

Random Island Features: Shargon’s Teeth

Roll d10

  1. Easily accessible fresh water
  2. Barren and dry; water from fruit and coconuts and rain
  3. Plenty of coastal food, shellfish, shoals
  4. Brutal sharp coral surrounding the island
  5. A high peak at the center for long visibility (if climbed)
  6. Crumbling ruins of a lost civilization
  7. Island formed around the ruins of a massive, ancient ship
  8. Coral atoll surrounding a deep blue hole
  9. Groves of dragonsblood trees (Socotra Island)
  10. Sharp, steaming volcanic activity (steam and magma mephits)

Next, I have a random table for the dominant living thing on a given island. I’m thinking of the islands having some basic island plants and animals, but there’s one dominant living thing, taken from this list:

Random Island Megafauna (and Megaflora): Shargon’s Teeth

Roll d10

  1. Giant marine iguanas
  2. Giant tortoises
  3. Carnivorous pisonia trees
  4. Giant racer snakes
  5. Giant ironweb spiders
  6. Basilisks
  7. A water weird
  8. Swarms of stirges
  9. Giant crabs
  10. A Pseudodragon

Last, I have whether there are intelligent inhabitants on the island. There’s a one third chance of each island being uninhabited by any intelligent creature, and then some interesting options:

Random Island Inhabitants: Shargon’s Teeth

Roll d12

  1. No one
  2. No one
  3. No one
  4. No one
  5. Sahuagin outpost
  6. Sahuagin outpost
  7. Locathah living in a blue hole, self-sustaining and hidden
  8. A subterranean, underwater cult of kuo-toa
  9. Feral victims of a previous shipwreck
  10. Escaped sea spawn
  11. Lizardfolk
  12. Sea hag

Obviously, these are specific to Shargon’s Teeth, and may not translate to any other particular setting. But I really like these as a starting-point for these particular islands, and I hope the PCs end up island-hopping for a while.

I also created a big random event and encounter table to keep the journey interesting. The results weren’t quite what I’d hoped, but I think I tried to cram too much into the voyage, including testing out Xanathar’s Guide’s downtime rules during the voyage and having some intrigue as well.

As often as you’d like, have a player roll a d100 and consult this table. Not all of these are supposed to be combat encounters – none of them were for our game. Rather, they were glimpses of a larger and sometimes scarier world:

 

1-4 Huge marine iguanas

5-6 Water elemental

7-8 Air elemental

9-10 Kraken

11-20 Sahuagin patrol

21-22 Dragon eel

23-24 Dragon turtle

25-26 Giant octopus

27-30 School of giant squid

31-35 Soarwood ship

36-46 Ship – roll to determine if it is a pirate

47-48 Wind galleon

49-50 Lyrandar airship

51-55 Pod of whales

56-60 Dolphins at the prow

61-64 Merfolk at the prow

65-67 Dragon (black, green, bronze or gold)

68-69 Stirges

70-80 Becalmed

81-91 Thunderstorm

92-93 Roc

94-95 Steam or ice mephits

96-97 Plesiosaurus

98-99 Coelacanth or other huge archaic fish

100 Roll twice

“Cursed” Items in D&D

Image result for cursed items d&d

This post arose from a conversation on social media a few weeks ago on the topic of cursed items in D&D. I don’t think I’ve used a cursed item in any of my games for 20 years or more, not since I first started playing AD&D in ancient times. The reason is that I just don’t like how cursed items work in D&D – they’re merely a “gotcha.” They’re a way to ensure that players never experiment with mysterious objects, wondering what they do – they quarantine them until someone can find a 100gp pearl and let the Wizard sit down and identify them.

And that simply isn’t fun, at least not for me.

The cursed items that come to mind for me impose some kind of disadvantage or unwanted change on a character, and are of course always difficult to remove, requiring a remove curse spell or something equivalent. There’s just nothing interesting about that, in the game or in the story. As DM, I have innumerable ways to challenge or inconvenience the PCs without having to resort to a Girdle of Gender Change or a helmet you can’t take off.

So it got me thinking, and talking, and I came up with two categories of cursed items that are interesting: cursed items that tempt, and cursed items for evil characters.

Tempting Cursed Items

Why would an item have a curse on it? Presumably because a powerful evil spellcaster put the curse on it, or because the item was used to do something heinous and this event left a stain of some sort on it. Here I’m thinking of dragon-gold in Middle-Earth causing dragon-sickness, or the Spear of Longinus. In either case, the curse has a purpose aside from inconveniencing and frustrating the person who finds the item.

My favorite example of an item that is cursed in an interesting way is also a trope – the sword that cannot be sheathed until it draws blood. This is a good cursed item because it encourages a certain kind of behavior. You could easily imagine a sword used to betray a brother, for example, that now thirsts for blood. This is interesting to me because it provides a mechanical bonus – it is still a magical sword, and maybe even deals bonus damage – but it also tempts the character to behave in morally questionable ways. Maybe she draws the sword to threaten someone during a tense scene, and then realizes that she now has to wound someone before she can sheathe it.

“Cursed” Items for Evil Characters

This kind of cursed item simply comes from a reversal of assumptions, using the same principle above. An evil blackguard finds a healing potion that refills itself, but only when he makes a donation and receives a blessing at a shrine of the God of Healing. Or maybe he finds a shield that makes him impervious to arrows, but only if he has no weapon in his hand and deals no damage.

In this case, the magic item is still useful, which is key, but the ‘cost’ of using it is engaging in benevolent, or at least restrained, behavior. These could even be holy artifacts never meant to be carried by the evil folks who now have them, and so the beneficial effects built into the items are glitches for their new owner. From the examples above, the shield could have originally been the Shield of Reconciliation, created to enable diplomats and negotiators to safely cross a battlefield without being shot so that they could try to end the battle with diplomacy.

At Cross Purposes

As a thought experiment to get you mind running, imagine holy artifacts and benevolent magic items that would cause problems when used by evil characters. Perhaps the item only grants a benefit when defending someone else, or it has to be recharged by some benevolent action. Think of something that would be useful for a good person, but limit an evil person’s choices.

From the other side, imagine evil artifacts that would cause moral quandaries for a wielder who is neutral or good. Perhaps a weapon that always deals bonus poison damage, but therefore cannot be used to deal non-lethal damage, or a bow that always seeks out a target’s vitals, meaning if the archer critically fails, she’s likely to shoot an ally in the heart.

Feel free to comment with your ideas for “cursed” items in D&D. 

5E Eberron Campaign

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I’m currently starting up a 5th Edition Eberron campaign. I have a lot of the books from the original version of Eberron in 3.5, and therefore more fluff than I could ever use, but it will take some adaptation to run this game. Unearthed Arcana has released some updates for basic Eberron material, which I am taking as my starting-point.

House Rules

First, some house rules. I can’t seem to run any RPG without at least a few house rules, and D&D is no exception.

Players roll all the dice. I just like this way of running a game, especially a game like D&D. I feel like the game slows to a crawl whenever the DM needs to roll dice for all the monsters and NPCs. Basically, where NPCs have bonuses I make those DCs, and where PCs have DCs (like Armor Class) I make those bonuses. I also use set damage, as in the MM. (Bonus: based on our first session, this rule works amazingly well, and is now how I DM)

Let it ride. I use this rule in all of my games. I get it from Burning Wheel. Basically, once you roll for something, the stakes remain. One stealth roll to sneak all the way in the castle. One roll to pick the lock. You can’t make another attempt until the conditions change.

Action points. One element of Eberron is Action Points. To emulate those in 5E, I just made the simple change that players can store, and swap, points of inspiration. Over time they can build up, and have a similar function to Action Points.

I’m also going to be working on house rules for House Tarkanan aberrant dragonmarks and the effects of the Mark of Vol, which I will share when I have them.

Principles

Everyone’s hack of D&D 5E to run Eberron will be a bit different. Here is what I have in mind for my own: in the Eberron setting material as written, as usual for 3.X D&D, the NPCs often have PC character classes, sometimes mixed with NPC classes. 5E’s approach from the Monster Manual and onward seems to be much more about exception-based design, including for humanoids who have abilities very similar to player-character classes.

One thing from Eberron that I’ll retain is that there are not many high-level NPCs in the world. So you get a setting where tons of characters have first-level spells of various kinds, and spells are relatively common up to maybe 3rd level, but if you need someone resurrected you’ll have to go on a question to find some sort of religious figure who can help you out. There also end up being plenty of threats that only the PCs can really deal with in the world, as CR 20 monsters abound.

Obsidian Portal

I love using Obsidian Portal for campaign management. It’s a good way to have a lot of my worldbuilding notes right in front of me, to track player-characters and NPCs, and to have something cool for players to dig through looking for Easter eggs that will help them in-game. This is my Obsidian portal page for Shadows of the Last War.

They Didn’t Meet In A Bar

To introduce the characters to one another, I threw them into a pretty contrived fight scene where some of their backgrounds came out all at once. After that, though, I had to have a reason for them to be working together. I hate the stage in a game where the PCs are pretending not to want to work together, so I decided to just force them together early on, and the players were OK with that. Sharn gave me an option I hadn’t used before – because of the high rent in Deathsgate where they all wanted to live, they are roommates. So now it’s a sort of dysfunctional episode of Friends, and the players all introduced their characters to each other by answering the question, “What kind of roommate are you?” It went great, and I recommend it as something to have in the goodie-bag for ways to get the party together early in a game, especially an urban one.

Large-Sized Characters In 5E D&D

As it stands, making any large-sized playable race in D&D 5E is more of a problem than is likely to be worthwhile. According to the DMG, a large-size playable race would deal double weapon damage at level 1, and with the way hit dice work in the MM, it could be argued that their class hit dice would be upgraded by one die type, meaning a large-sized fighter for example would have d12 hit dice instead of d10 due to size.

These huge advantages would be balanced out a bit by the fact that a large PC would have to squeeze in a lot of common situations – traveling through Dwarven tunnels or visiting the ubiquitous pseudo-Medieval taverns. I’d assume, though, that the DM would just have to adjust for that, reducing the number of five-foot-wide corridors and so on in a given adventure, or else the player playing the large PC would just be left out. Somewhat balanced, but definitely no fun, leaving a situation where the PC would have all the advantages and probably few, or none, of the constraints of being large.

The effects of the Enlarge/Reduce spell in the PHB suggest another interpretation, a bit less advantageous than what the DMG and MM imply. An enlarged creature deals +1d4 damage with their enlarged weapon and have advantage on Strength checks and Strength saves and that’s pretty much it. Presumably, the DM just improvises the effects of being enlarged where it would be a detriment rather than an advantage, and obviously a savvy caster would not enlarge an ally in the middle of a cramped room or hallway designed for medium-sized species.

I don’t think either approach to a large-sized playable race is particularly good, whether taking our cue from the DMG and MM, or from the PHB. That being said, I like the idea of a large-sized playable race a lot. I think it adds something to a setting and to the options available to players, and there should be a way to balance things out. In 3.X this balance came in part with a penalty to Armor Class and stealth checks, and I think that makes sense conceptually.

So here is what I think a large-sized race or species in D&D 5E should include: +1d4 damage from large-sized weapons, advantage on Strength saves and Strength checks, disadvantage on Dexterity saves and Dexterity checks, +1 hit points per level, and a cost of living multiplied by four (including meals, water skins, clothing, equipment, etc.).

An Example: Dark Sun’s Half Giant

Ability Score Increase. Your Strength and Constitution score both increase by 2.

Age. Half-giants live about twice as long as humans, becoming adults around the age of 25 and often living to 170 (for the few who die of old age).

Alignment. Half-giants adopt their alignment from the people they spend the most time with, or fear or respect most. This means that their alignment will be more subject to change than others, though one axis will tend to remain consistent. So they might be consistently Good, but sometimes Chaotic and sometimes Lawful, or consistently Chaotic, but sometimes Good and sometimes Evil.

Powerful Build. Half-giants have advantage on Strength checks and Strength saves.  They also have disadvantage on Dexterity checks and Dexterity saves. In addition, their build grants them +1 hit points per level.

Size. Half-giants are Large sized creatures. They occupy a 10′ by 10′ square, and have a 5′ reach. They also deal +1d4 damage with all weapons, in addition to the listed damage.

Speed. Half-giants have a base speed of 35 feet.

Upkeep. The cost of living and cost of all equipment for a half-giant is four times the usual amount.