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 till 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 all equipment for a half-giant costs four times the usual amount.

There, I Fixed It: The Wish Spell

Image result for wish aladdin

Something that the System Mastery guys love to harp on, all the way back to their very first episode: Dungeons & Dragons’ wish spell (and similar spells in the wish tradition from other RPGs as well). As written, wish spells, or wishes in general in TRPGs, are almost always explicitly ways to disrupt players’ expectations and, in a word, screw them. GMs and DMs are often encouraged to find any possible loophole, any interpretation in the player-character’s wish that might justify screwing with them.

In 5th Edition and 3.5 as well, other than that, a wish spell is for the most part just a catch-all for replicating an 8th level spell. There is otherwise a list of possible effects that are clearly defined and limited in scope. Part of the problem is that wishes in the folkloric sense should not be spells – the simple solution here is to excise wish from the list of arcane spells entirely. But if you want to keep it, or if your game is going to feature a significant number of genies, then there must be something better than punishing players with it. (If you want to punish a character, hand them a Deck of Many Things and stand back).

The potential problems with wishes should be obvious, and there are plenty of folkloric stories about well-intentioned wishes going wrong, or at the very least not having the effect that the wisher intended. On the other hand, these problems are usually ways of moving the story forward so that the protagonist can learn something or change in some way. All too often in TRPGs, wishes are simply opportunities for the DM to punish a player for trying to be creative, when it’s the DM’s decision whether to allow wishes in the first place. For those DMs whose players are not masochists, I have some other thoughts.

The first is that a wish should be fun. Here I’m thinking of Aladdin’s first (official) wish in the Disney animated adaptation of his story regarding a certain lamp. He basically gets what he wishes for, and if anything, Genie goes overboard (as Robin Williams invariably did) in embellishing the whole scene. Rather than being a stingy saboteur, one pictures Aladdin’s DM just throwing cool things at the player-character until the player’s head spins. There are complication, of course, as “Prince Ali” draws the attention of a sinister visier and is suddenly plunged into court life having been a fruit-stealing street kid not long ago, but the story moves forward with the wish fulfilled at face value, plus interest.

Wishes should be fun. D&D should be fun. It should never be a DM power trip, or about ‘punishing’ players.

Second, a wish should indeed have a cost or an unforeseen complication, but this cost or complication should be something that is part of the story moving forward and continuing to be fun. The street rat suddenly lifted to Princedom has no actual idea how to be a Prince. No history, no family, no connections, no homeland, nothing. And as mentioned, he draws the attention of the sinister vizier. I would even recommend discussing possible complications with the player who is making the wish. I know this is not everyone’s play style, but in my experience this doesn’t diminish the fun – you kind of trade surprise for a higher guarantee that you’ll all enjoy the twist.

Third, a wish should take context into account. I still think that DMs should just eliminate wish from all spell lists where it might appear, and keep wishes as a story element. Obvious options are powerful fey or genies whom the PCs have worked to befriend. Maybe the goal of a whole campaign could be to earn a wish from a powerful entity, and then to use that wish to restore the kingdom, or end a curse, or cure a plague. But remember that the wish is interpreted in context. If a PC makes a wish granted by the genie, that genie will interpret the wish, and a wish granted by an ifrit will be very different from one granted by a marid, or a djinni. Rather than a chance to punish players, this is a chance for a DM to show off her creativity. To use this example again, a wish granted by a genie voiced by Robin Williams will be one thing – one granted by a stingy cantankerous fey quite another.

Remember that a wish’s fulfillment does not need to be immediate (unless maybe the PC adds that to the request – in which case, it could rain gold pieces or cause other upheaval). Feel free to take a moment in game when the wish is finally made (which again should be a huge story moment) to go think through what it will look like when it is fulfilled.

Discourage players from gaming the wish. A player might be tempted to go off and write out a page-long run-on sentence as her wish, full of legalese and dependent clauses. Depict the wish-granter getting bored and starting to wander off. Understandably, players will anticipate the DM trying to twist their wish against them, and will try to avoid that eventuality. Maybe reassure them, if necessary, that this is a big story moment and you’re not going to sabotage it.

So, to summarize the wish spell – don’t make it a spell at all. Make it a story element. Make it fun. Have a cost or unforeseen complication, but make it one that moves the story forward in an interesting way. Take the context of the wish, and the wish-granter, into account. And push the players not to lawyer the wish, even if you just have to reassure them.

Do you have any stories of wishes going well, or poorly, in your campaigns? If so, share in the comments. 

Works in Progress

I have way too many irons in the fire. I have a lot of things to work on (in addition to, you know, work) – far too many to actually finish any of them. As a friend reminded me recently, finishing things is a skill. I have that skill, but I need to sharpen it. Sometimes it helps to write everything out – and who knows? Maybe something here will be of interest to a reader. So, in no particular order:

Servants of the Secret Fire

Yes, this is a fantasy hearbreaker. A Tolkien-esque one no less! Until Cubicle 7 put out The One Ring, I was working on a system that actually reflected Middle-Earth. When TOR came out, I really felt that they did a good job at my task, so I let it languish.

The system as it is still has some interesting things about it. I wrote a post about attribute decay, for example, that is part of SotSF, and there are other elements in there that I like. But, an obvious problem: I do not work for Cubicle 7, which currently has the right to publish a RPG based on Middle-Earth. So whatever I do to complete this project would just be for me, for groups I game with, or maybe to release out into the world for free.

Simplified D&D

Years ago – eight years ago now? – before 5th edition existed for D&D, I hacked 4th Edition in order to run a game for a group that wanted to play D&D but wasn’t interested in learning a lot of rules. Or, in some cases, any rules. Though that hack was designed with 4th Ed in mind, I could definitely adapt it to 5th Ed. It’s even something I’m still interested in playing and running.

Rewilding the Bible

One of my problems is that I am interested in too many things. Scattered. But one thing I’m interested in is rewilding, and more than that, the idea that for the most part our civilization is not a good idea, certainly not in the long term, and that some other way of life is probably the way to go.

There are plenty of other people who know a lot more about this, who are working to learn self-sufficiency, and becoming ungovernable, and training in prehistoric survival skills. I’m not very good at any of these things, yet.

I have noticed, though, that I know more about the Bible than other people who are interested in rewilding. What I would like to do is to create a resource, probably the length of a short book, that looks at passages in the Bible that reflect this worldview. There is actually plenty there. And based on the reception of a recent sermon, I think there are people who might be able to hear what I have to say.

95 Tweets Expanded

A few years ago, two friends of mine and I assembled 95 Tweets, our homage to Luther’s 95 theses, all arguing against the idea of a Hell of eternal conscious torment. Even from a purely Christian standpoint, even from a literalist, the arguments for Hell are incredibly week, and the counter-arguments kind of overwhelming. So we overwhelmed, with 95 tweets.

The problem is that, with a barrage like that, there’s no point at which to engage. Even if someone wanted to argue a contrary position (and I know many do) it’s hard to get a hand-hold. So, I feel like I need to expand the ideas and claims that we made in the 95 Tweets. Part of what makes me hesitant is that there is already a lot out there about this issue, and I need to make sure that what I would contribute would be worthwhile, and not just replicating someone else’s work.

5E Setting: Dragonblade

I started a D&D 5E game set in what I’m not calling Tianxia, but that was just called Dragonblade at the time. It’s a south and east Asian mashup in the way that a lot of fantasy settings are a north and western Europe mashup, primarily drawing on Japanese, Chinese and Indian history and mythology. It’s fun, and I’ve posted a bit of my work on this blog before. It’s also the result of my frustrations with other attempts to do the same thing. Does that make it a hearbreaker? Sort of. Oh well. I think it’s a cool setting, and I’ve run the first part of a game in it. My rule is that I design settings that I would be excited to play in, and this one fits the bill.

5E Setting: Twilight of the Gods

I recently completed a long-term campaign called Twilight of the Gods. The setting is mythic Scandinavia, and beyond that, Europe and the wider world. The setting takes Ragnarok literally, and a campaign set in it will begin when Ragnarok is just about to. The advantage here is that the setting is actually slightly simpler than the base setting for 5th Edition. I’ve also already put in a lot of the work already, having run a full campaign.

5E Setting: Alaam

This is a cool setting that I’ve sketched out, but in which I have yet to run a campaign. It is inspired by the stories of 1001 Arabian Nights as well as aspects of Islamic mythology, blended with Dungeons & Dragons of course. It has a monotheistic religion, and godlike genies ruling a realm of raw and exaggerated elements, and other coolness. Less developed than Dragonblade or Twilight of the Gods, but still really cool.

This Blog

I’ve been blogging since 2006, and have carried over two other incarnations of my blog to this site. So, if you want, there are 11 years of my writing to choose from. Can’t recommend it all, though.

I’ve been working to be more consistent in writing, and I’ve found some cool connections on Reddit, as well as continued connections through social media. I’m trying to build up weekly, ideally daily, writing discipline. I’m not there yet, but it’s a vehicle for sharpening my skills. It always has been.

Ability Frequency vs Payoff

Image result for classic D&D art

I’ve been thinking about an issue in game design, and in running games. The issue is the relationship between the frequency with which a player uses an ability and the amount of “payoff”, or impact on the fiction, that the ability provides. For this consideration, an ability might be an ability score, or proficiency, or skill, or move – whichever things a character has to influence the fiction directly. Whatever point of contact there is between the character sheet and the shared imaginary space.

I’m going to use 5th Edition D&D as one example, but I think this line of reasoning is important for any game, whether one you’re designing, or hacking, or running.

High and Low Frequency

When I talk about high frequency, what I mean is those abilities that get rolled or used often. A good example from many games is the perception skill, or whatever the equivalent is (perception, awareness, alertness, notice, listen/spot, etc.). I wrote about perception previously, and I won’t go over any of that here. The point is, simply, that some abilities get used significantly more than others in a given game. After a while, experienced players figure out what those abilities are, and often give every character at least a little bit of capability there. Perception rolls can be called for in every scene, to detect monsters or notice NPCs or find clues. These rolls can also provide a road-block to the game when the clue isn’t found.

Lower frequency abilities often include lore-related abilities. In D&D, knowledge skills are generally only used for two things: answering questions about the setting and background, which may or may not have any impact on the game, and giving the character knowledge about  monsters that the player knows from the Monster Manual. Other abilities are aimed only at rogues, or in the case of performance, only at bards. These can be low frequency abilities, because only one class will generally be rolling them – though sometimes that class will roll them a lot.

I imagine, in an average D&D 5E game, there could easily be 10 or more Wisdom (Perception) checks rolled, 2 or 3 Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Stealth) checks rolled, 1 Intelligence (Religion or Arcana) check rolled, and zero Charisma (Performance) checks. Each of these abilities, though, costs one proficiency pick at character creation. In terms of character generation, they have the same weight, but in play, they have drastically different weights.

High and Low Payoff

I’m comparing abilities by frequency and also by payoff – by what the ability gets you. Charisma (Performance) is another example of a low-payoff ability. If you use it, you might get a small amount of money or briefly entertain a crowd. Importantly, it doesn’t help you do anything central to any edition of D&D – explore set pieces and fight monsters. By contrast, Strength (Athletics) lets you do things that are central to D&D, like climbing and swimming – things that actually let you navigate a dungeon or outdoor setting. Dexterity (Stealth) lets you avoid combat when you want to, or set an ambush, or gain an advantage in combat. And we’ve already talked about Wisdom (Perception).

Some abilities are high frequency and high payoff, like perception abilities in many games, while other abilities are low frequency and low payoff, like performance or artistic abilities in most games. Other abilities lie somewhere in the middle. I don’t necessarily want to go through an inventory here, just put forward this way of understanding abilities in games and game design.

Frequency and Payoff in Running Games

When running a game, it’s good to keep in mind what abilities your players have invested in, and to make sure that all of them come up in the game at some point. You can also give insight when planning a game, which abilities will come up most often. For an urban campaign, maybe investing in Wisdom (Survival) won’t be all that useful, but Intelligence (Investigation) could come up frequently. In a game that will focus on cults and the undead, Intelligence (Religion) might come up a lot more often.

Some payoff can be in the fiction itself. For the example of performance or artistic abilities, which tend to be low frequency and low payoff, you can have a higher payoff in the fiction. The crowd can go wild, and the character can gain new fans. Maybe they get to stay in the inn for free whenever they’re in town. Later, when they want a hireling to come with them, they get one that is extra competent, or cheaper, or at least really loyal and enthusiastic. For a more concrete payoff, maybe there is a noblewoman in the audience who decides to become the character’s patron, paying her will to perform when not adventuring.

In the example of a knowledge skill, instead of giving basic Monster Manual information on a creature, perhaps each creature could have a particular weakness, or condition that the characters can exploit in conflict. Something like T-Rex in Jurassic Park supposedly not being able to see things that aren’t moving.

Frequency and Payoff in Game Design

Ideally, the frequency and payoff of abilities in game design should balance out. Low frequency should correspond to high payoff, and high frequency with low payoff. I think that this option is more interesting than having abilities be low frequency and low payoff (why have them all). High frequency and high payoff  would work well, though it might at some point become monotonous to have every ability have a huge impact every time.

The key to figuring out both frequency and payoff is playtesting. You’ll see how players use various abilities, and how much the enjoy the payoff you’ve designed in to them. You can not how often the abilities are used, and then when revising, tune the payoff up or down, or perhaps redesign the abilities so that they come up more or less frequently.

What are your thoughts about frequency and payoff in the games you design, play and run? 

D&D Hack: A Scarlet Letter

Image result for scarlet letter M

Previously I posted about adapting D&D so that combat is no longer fatal, which I have yet to test, but I thought of a deeper idea to add to that hack: a scarlet letter. Obviously I’m referring back to the Hawthorne novel, but in this case, a different letter with a different meaning.

First, start with D&D and the additional hack or house rule that combat is no longer fatal. When a character or monster is beaten down to 0 or negative hit points, what it represents is that they are defeated, but not necessarily dead. But in conversation with my friend and collaborator Aric, we thought that this house rule would make it more interesting when a foe or monster did want to fight to the death. It would be all the more threatening in a setting where the players had gotten used to these non-lethal combats as the norm.

Now, the addition. I thought it would be interesting if only monsters who could be killed were able to kill. And I thought it would be interesting if this was marked out on the character sheet somehow. So, for example, if a player wants their character to be able to kill a monster or another NPC, they just wrote “Monster” on the character sheet, or checked the Monster box or something. Then I thought it would be even more interesting if this mark was literal, in the game world itself. The character marks themselves with a red “M.” If a foe or monster is marked with a red “M” then you know ahead of time that this is a fight to the death. Only creatures with a “M” can kill. It’s definitely a meta-game element, something akin to a creature having a red outline in a video game, or some other visual marker that is obvious to the player but not literally part of the fictional world.

I thought this was really interesting. You have to take that step, identify yourself as a monster, in order to kill your enemies, but you are vulnerable to any creature with the ‘scarlet letter.’ Is this too heavy-handed? Maybe. It could be interesting for a convention game, maybe, or a game with kids. I like, as an experiment, that it is a visible distinction that you have to make. It’s a clear choice, and of course, there is probably no way to remove the “M” once it’s in place. (Maybe an atonement spell? That would give that spell a really cool purpose)

How to explain this mark? Maybe the PCs are part of a simulation, or an alien experiment on violent behavior, or inmates in a magical prison. Who knows? Maybe it’s just a weird thing about the world, like aboleths and Vancian magic. I mean, it’s not like D&D makes sense to start with. But I like how this plays with the old D&D trope of some intelligent creatures being “monsters” – having something intrinsic about them that makes them stand out as threats. I like applying this to the PCs and non-“monster” races. I do have to think more about how to implement it, though.

It makes me think of Mist-Robed Gate, an indie rpg by Shreyas Sampat with a mechanic whereby, if you want to try to kill another character, you literally stab their character sheet with a knife. There are other games I’ve read about where you point a knife at a character at the table if you are attacking them, or outwardly mark lethal intent in other ways, but I like the idea of an obvious move that opens up the possibility of lethality when that isn’t the norm. The ‘scarlet letter’ M is just another way to do that.

Image result for D&D tpk

5E Dragonlance: Finale

A few months ago, we ended my Dragonlance campaign. We had to end nowhere near the ending of the Age of Despair storyline (the original module storyline from the early 90s and the Chronicles trilogy) because of life stuff, but I’m finally getting around to writing a bit about the ending and the experience overall.

Timing: Exactly as Advertised for DL1-DL4

I ran a flexible version of the first four modules from the original Dragonlance series published by TSR back in the 90s: DL1 through DL4. Once thing I noticed, which was interesting, is that the number of sessions it took to get through those modules, even though at times I changed them, skipped parts, or added to them based on the players’ in put, was exactly what they predicted: 24 sessions. I just thought it was interesting that the estimate was so close, even going from AD&D to 5th Edition.

No Kender, Gully Dwarves or Gnomes

Krynn is famously ridiculous for the number of comic-relief races they have in the setting: kender, gully dwarves and gnomes all serve as different kinds of comic relief in the setting and stories, and all three of those races have some profoundly annoying features. Kender basically beg players to steal from each other, behave randomly and completely sabotage any attempts at gravity in the story. Gully dwarves are offensively stupid, and an excuse for all other races to have a race that they treat with contempt at every turn. Gnomes are supposed to talk so fast that their words string together into huge run-ons without pauses, and while this can be funny a couple of times in a book it is beyond annoying to have at the actual table in play. Additionally, they are zany inventors who are steampunk when everything around them is pseudo-medieval fantasy. None of their inventions work, but they are obsessed with them anyway, and so on.

This campaign had no kender, no gully dwarves, and no gnomes, and no one missed them. The few gully dwarves who come up in the original modules I altered to make into goblins, who were not necessarily stupid but spoke in simple sentences because they didn’t have a strong grasp of Common most of the time. They were even sometimes empathetic characters because they were either living on their own in tribes or were beaten and intimidated into service by the Dragon Highlords. It worked fine, and you still had your Sestun and your Bupu and so on.

Epilogues

Because we had to end early, we ended with an epilogue for each of the characters. This was probably more than our two players who were kids could really manage – they were upset that we had to end the game because of Grownup Stuff, and didn’t really get the idea of an epilogue (one was 9 and one was 13 at the end of the campaign, having started at 8 and 12). Still, it was the best I could do. I feel like if you have to end early, the least you can do is try to provide some closure. Not easy at the end of the 4th out of 14 D&D modules, but there you have it.

 

Backgrounds as 0-Level Classes

Image result for zero level characters

Image credit: http://geekrampage.blogspot.com/

In AD&D 2nd edition as well as 3E, there were rules for characters who were lower than 1st level. These “0-level” characters were like pre-adventurers, meant to symbolize children or apprentices. I’ve played in a couple of games that began with us playing zero-level characters who would then develop into 1st level characters. For my taste, 1st level characters are already incredibly weak, famously vulnerable to the attack of a house cat in some editions.

But I was thinking of a way to address some of that vulnerability. In 5E, of course, every character chooses a background which grants them proficiencies, equipment, and often some kind of story-based ability. I realized that it would be a logical step to let the background also provide a hit die.

Most of the sample basic NPCs in the MM have two or three hit dice, making them slightly tougher than some first level player-characters. And the impression I’ve always had of D&D is that characters aren’t really adults until around 3rd level. This is reinforced by the fact that in 5E, you usually don’t choose an archetype until 3rd level.

One option here is to just let each background grant the d8 hit die that medium-sized creatures get, or a d6 in the case of a small-sized PC. I kind of like the idea that the d10 is reserved for mighty heroes, fighter-types, and that the d12 is the boss die. Possibly even bawss. But, if you don’t want to just use a d8, here are suggestions ranging from d4 to d8, based on how tough I think a given background would make you.

Acolyte: d4

Charlatan: d6

Criminal: d6

Entertainer: d4

Folk Hero: d8

Guild Artisan: d6

Hermit: d6

Noble: d4

Outlander: d8

Sage: d4

Sailor: d6

Soldier: d8

Urchin: d6

These hit dice, whether variable or d8s, should function the same way that normal hit dice do. As to whether you roll them, or take the average, or take the maximum, just do what you’d normally do. If you want PCs to have lots of hit points at the beginning, take the maximum. Otherwise, roll or average as usual.