Magic Trinkets

5a661837d246de342642559134513979I love magic items in Dungeons & Dragons. They’re an integral part of the game, give the non-spellcasters a taste of the arcane, and can just be exciting to find in the hoard of treasure hidden at the end of the latest dungeon.

That being said, you have to be careful with how many magic items you give to the players. Too many cool toys can lead to a party that’s too powerful, which can cause you issues in the future.

Taking that into account, I thought it’d be interesting to introduce a new time of magic item, one that could allow you to include a large amount of them, but would not increase the power level of a party significantly. This is where Magic Trinkets come into play.

Magic Trinkets are magic items with minor, but useful effects. They will not be as flashy as their more potent cousins, but can help out in a pinch. They will typically allow the owner to use a specific cantrip, the single use of a lower level spell, or some other small benefit. Here are some examples of Magic Trinkets:

  • ILLUMINATION RINGThis simple, golden ring is decorated with a single citrine. The owner may issue the command word “light”, allowing them to cast the Light cantrip, the amber glow radiating outward from the citrine.
  • MESSENGER EARRINGS: These earrings appear to be a small crystal encased in copper wire. The owner of one of the earrings may spend an action to activate it, allowing them to cast the Message cantrip. However, they may only target the owner of the other earring.
  • SLUMBER SAND: The owner may spend an action to throw the glittering sand within this small bag onto a creature within 5 feet of them or throw the bag up to 20 feet, causing it to burst on impact. In either case, make a ranged attack against the creature, treating the sand as an improvised weapon. On a hit, the target suffers the effects of the Sleep spell. This lasts for 1 minute, but ends immediately if they take damage or someone uses an action to shake or slap them awake.

Keep in mind these are meant to be super amazing. They’re supposed to be useful, little items that allow you to get the fun of a magic item, but keep the power on the lower side. These could be the stuff you’d find at a magic shop, beside your typical scrolls or potions, letting you keep the more iconic items to be found out in the wild or in the dungeon. They can also let you give some useful effects to the party in a controlled way, limiting the effect to a single use or only once per long rest.

((NOTEThis post is a revision of an older post I made on the previous blog. I liked the ideas, but felt updating/replacing portions of the text)).

Simplified Experience Points

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Be honest. The Final Fantasy “Level Up” jingle popped into your head at least once while reading this.

Experience Points (XP) have been a part of Dungeons & Dragons since the very beginning. They help measure the advancement of a character, telling you how close they are to reaching that next level. The things that grant XP might have changed, but the rule itself has remained as a key feature of the system.

However, like most rules that have been present throughout the various editions of Dungeons & Dragons, XP is not without its fair share of problems.

The most prominent critique you might hear is how the modern implementation of the rule seems to favor a more combat-focused style of play. The default method for earning XP in the most recent editions is defeating opponents in battle. This has led to many believing it can condition players to lean to viewing combat as the go-to solution to an encounter, seeing as it’s the only one that will actually help them get closer to leveling up.

I also take issue with the sheer amount of XP needed to earn a new level. These totals made more sense in the earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons because you used to earn XP based on the treasure you discovered, usually 1 GP = 1 XP. This method was eventually abandoned by the designers, but the XP totals were kept for some reason.

The easily solution to these issues would be to simply do away with XP, but I feel like that would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I decided I’d go with a different solution.

This method is based upon how Pathfinder Society handles XP. Characters will be awarded 1 XP for every adventure they complete. They advance a single level for every 3 XP they have earned.

Short, simple, and straightforward.

There is a big issue one would have to deal with when adopting this system: how to handle the expedited advancement of the initial levels (1st-3rd). I would suggest just altering the required amounts. I’d say 1 XP for 2nd level, and 2 XP for 3rd level.

The reason why I like this method is that it takes combat out of the equation entirely. This makes it all about finishing adventures, and doesn’t lean towards one path to do so. The smaller totals also make it much easier to figure out when you level up, especially since you no longer have to look up a table to figure out the next arbitrary amount.

How much XP do I need to reach 4th level? +3 XP. How much XP do I need to reach 5th level? +3 XP. How about 10th level? +3 XP.

What do you think? Would you prefer this method over the default? Would you add or change anything? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Happy Gary Gygax Day!

531001_400433280025300_1590190270_n-462x600Seventy-Nine years ago today, Ernest Gary Gygax was born in Chicago to Almina Emelie and Ernst Gygax. In 1972, Gygax began collaborating with Dave Arneson after the later demonstrated his Blackmoor campaign, working to create something they simply called “The Fantasy Game”. This game would eventually evolve into the role-playing game that we all know today as Dungeons & Dragons.

Gary Gygax has been described by many as the Father of D&D. He was the co-founder of Tactical Studies Rules (TSR), the founder of Dragon Magazine, created one of the most beloved campaign settings (Greyhawk), and was the author of several modules that have become classics (The Keep on the BorderlandsThe Temple of Elemental Evil, etc.). I think it’s fair to say the man earned his title.

In March of 2008, Gary Gygax passed away. He has thankfully left behind a strong legacy, helping create a game that has brought joy to countless people around the world, giving birth to an entire hobby, and did whatever he could to make it thrive. This blog wouldn’t exist without him.

This is why July 27th has become a holiday within the RPG community. Today we celebrate a man who gave us an outlet to tell fantastical stories with our friends, letting us delve into forgotten dungeons, and slay mighty dragons.

Happy Gary Gygax Day!

Castle Ravenloft – The Metroidvania Megadungeon

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Two weeks ago, Castlevania premiered on Netflix. This animated series is based on the classic video game franchise of the same name, specifically Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse.  I’ve already watched it fives times, so I think it’s safe to say I enjoyed it. The voice acting is solid, the animation good, the action entertaining, and the handling of Dracula is rather intriguing. I just wish it was longer than four episodes.

The Castlevania franchise has always held a special place in my horror-loving heart, especially that iconic theme. I find myself quietly humming it to myself whenever I’m exploring a dungeon. I can remember the hours I’d spend sitting in front of the television, my chubby hands wrapped tightly around a NES controller, slaying monsters while traversing Dracula’s enormous castle, trying to not get too angry when I died for the millionth time.

While watching Castlevania, I had a spark of inspiration. How cool would it be to run a Dungeons & Dragons campaign based on the franchise. The players would enter an ancient castle under the dominion of a vampiric lord, a castle that is gigantic in size, encountering various different monsters along the way.

Why not take the material presented in Curse of Strahd and turn his castle into a Metroidvania-style megadungeon?

First, I’d probably do away with a majority of the story elements presented within the module. Don’t get me wrong, the story’s good, but wouldn’t be the best fit for what I have in mind. I’d mostly be using the maps, the information on Barovia so the players could have a home base to retreat to in times of crisis, and the stats for Strahd himself.

The biggest addition I’d have to make is increasing the size of the castle itself. The castle would become the center point  of the campaign, and I’d want to elevate it to a true megadungeon, one that gives the players a great deal of freedom to explore at their own pace. I’d use the material that already exists for Castle Ravenloft as a solid foundation, expanding upon it, making it something utterly massive. Something that would feel right at home in a Castlevania game.

I’d also borrow a lot of the creatures from the games because it would be absolutely criminal not to do so. I would be a piss-poor DM if I didn’t take this opportunity to use something as awesomely creepy as the Granfalloon, or not include at least one encounter with the Grim Reaper. Plus a flying Medusa head or two for good measure.

I’d probably take a few of the story elements from Curse of Strahd, mostly the stuff with his reincarnating lover, and the aspect from Castlevania about Dracula returning every 100 years. Probably keep it simple, with the gates to Castle Ravenloft mysteriously opening every century as Strahd awakens from his deep slumber to hopefully find his beloved once again, sending his minions out into the countryside to search for her.

This gives me a number of hooks to lead the players to the castle, from the altruistic in slaying a dangerous vampire to save Barovia to the greedy wishing to simply claim the treasures that must surely be hidden within that big castle.

This idea is still pretty rough, mostly because I’m still without a regular group, giving me all the time I need to flesh this out further. Feel free to take this idea for yourself & run with it. I think it’d be a blast to play/run.

Taking the Initiative

Last week in Unearthed Arcana, an alternate method for handling initiative was introduced. This new system requires every participant to decide what they want to do before each round of combat, then roll various related to those actions. The character with the lowest result goes first, then everyone else going in ascending order.

These variant rules are intriguing to me. On one hand, I like how they make combat less predictable. The fact that you are required to roll initiative each round means you can’t rely on a prescribed pattern, keeping you on your toes. Furthermore, I enjoy that it requires you to plan what you are going to do before the dice are rolled.

On the other hand, I don’t think I’m a fan of the additional complexity this system adds. The idea of rolling different dice for different kind of actions is interesting, but might just be a tad bit too fiddly for my tastes. It kind of reminds me of Weapon Speed in older edition. Theoretically nice, not so much in actual execution.

I’d definitely be willing to give “Greyhawk Initiative” a try, but I doubt it would become a permanent feature in my games. That being said, this new system did inspire me to think about alternate ways to handle initiative.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I think the default method presented in the Player’s Handbook is a solid system. It’s relatively easy to grok and very rarely gets in the way when you’re playing the game. There’s a reason why it’s the default.

However, I think I might adopt at least one aspect of the Greyhawk Initiative: rolling every round instead of just at the beginning of combat. I really dig the unpredictability it adds to each round. This would also allow me to test a house rule I’ve been tinkering around with that’d let characters who roll a Natural 20 to take their turn at any time during the round. This rule can work using the default method, but I think rolling each round would help it really shine.

The biggest issue with implementing this will be the extra step that will be added at the start of each round, which will obviously add more time to each encounter. I’ll be able to cut down on some of the additional time by utilizing Initiative Cards, which can be made by taking a couple of 3×5 index cards, folding them in half, writing down all the names of the characters upon them, and draping them over the top of your screen in the proper order. Each time the order changes, I just quickly move the cards.

Hell, I suggest everyone adopt the use of initiative cards. They generally speed up the process of establishing initiative order, plus create a useful visual for everyone at the table. Forget who goes next? Take a quick look at the DM’s screen to find out!

Before I end this post, which I should do to prevent myself from rambling, I want to leave you all with a question: How do you handle initiative in your game? Do you use the default method, or something else? Leave your answers in the comments below.

Into the Unknown – How to Include Exploration at the Table

originalzelda20This past Friday, Wizards of the Coast revealed the title for their next big adventure: Tomb of Annihilation. This adventure will still take place within the Forgotten Realms, but not the Sword Coast like the previous ones. Instead, Tomb of Annihilation will be set in Chult, a land dominated by uncharted jungles, the ruins of ancient civilizations, and filled to the brim with dangerous threats (whether they be living or not).

I can’t tell you how happy this makes me. Chult is easily one of my favorite areas of the Realms, mostly because I have an affinity for the Indiana Jones-style of pulp fiction with a heavy dose of dinosaur awesomeness.

The other aspect of this announcement that got me excited was the designers saying they wanted to focus upon one of the Three Pillars they’ve admittedly neglected recently: Exploration. On pg. 8 of the Player’s Handbook, the writers list what they consider to be the “Three Pillars of Adventure”: ExplorationSocial Interaction, & Combat. The latter two have definitely been in the spotlight in previous adventures, with Exploration taking something of a backseat. Don’t get me wrong, it has been there, but nowhere near as much as the other Pillars.

Because Wizards hopes to bring this neglected Pillar more to the forefront with Tomb of Annihilation, I thought I’d take some time to discuss ways one might foster more exploration within their campaigns, inspiring their players to gather their gear, open up their maps, and venture forth into the uncharted wilderness.

The first piece of advice will hearken back to my post on running sandbox campaigns, which this can be seen as a companion piece to this one. Seed your setting with legends or rumors that will inspire your players to investigate them. Sprinkle interesting locales throughout your setting, hidden away within the shadows of the natural world. There could be an abandoned dwarven fortress tucked away within the mountains to the north, rumored to be filled with mountains of treasure. These rumors will not, and probably should not, be 100% accurate. They’re rumors after all. They should be intriguing enough to hook a group of curious adventures, encouraging them to set out to figure the truth out for themselves.

Next, make sure the journey is just as interesting as the destination. The key to making exploration entertaining is the journey being an eventful one. Trips that are nothing more than a series of camping montages will be boring beyond belief. Make sure to spice up the trip. You can do this by including random encounters, or purposefully seeding encounters along the way. The journey is also how you can include the other two Pillars.

One day the players might be ambushed by a band of centaurs while taking a shortcut through a nearby forest, while the next day could have them negotiating with a reclusive hedge witch for some healing potions in exchange for clearing out a family of pesky mites that have infested her garden. Just make sure to make these encounters varied. Throwing combat encounter after combat encounter at your players will cause the journey to become monotonous.

Third, limit the character’s resources. I know this might be a hard sell for some people. Tracking resources can be a real pain, especially if you do it as written. That being said, making sure resources remain a limited element will add depth to the exploration process. Players will be forced to think about their actions when they realize they might be be low on rations or ammunition. It might also get them to do things they might not normally do when resource tracking isn’t a thing, such as hunting or fishing. These can also give you openings to include an encounter. For example, maybe the group’s ranger decides to do some early morning hunting to restock the party’s food supply, but happens to stumble upon a pair of goblins attempting to kill a unicorn. That could lead to an interesting side quest.

Finally, and most importantly, let your players get lost & be surprised. The true joy of exploration is the chance at discovery, finding something you didn’t expect along the way. Let your players venture off course, whether they realize it or not. Let them investigate the little points of intrigue you toss out. Let them feel like they’ve discovered something, as if they found a secret they were not supposed to see. Let them get in over their heads, and let them run away so they can survive to fight another day.

This can easily be done by having published material that you can readily drop into the environment to represent hidden locations. You can also print out a very simplistic version of the setting’s map, maybe one that only notes the most commonly known locations, letting the players add to it as the venture out, noting down new spots or paths, letting them make it their own. Like sandbox campaigns, exploration is all about the player’s agency, letting them make their own choices, and reacting to them.

Exploration has earned its place among the Three Pillars for a reason. It is one of the core foundations of Dungeons & Dragons, enriching almost any campaign. I hope this post has inspired you to include more of it in your campaigns.

Getting the Band Back Together

dndgroupTell me if you’ve heard something similar to this before:

You have been summoned to the Wayward Knave, the seedy tavern on the outskirts of town. You arrive at the establishment and find yourself ushered towards a large table near the back of the lively taproom, meeting several other adventurers who received a similar invitation. You are soon joined by a mysterious figure, shrouded by a dark cloak, hoping to hire you all for a peculiar quest.”

This is seen by most as the stereotypical introduction for your generic Dungeons & Dragons adventure. It even has a page on TV Tropes dedicated to it. The trope is incredibly old, having been the subject of countless jokes and parodies over the years. That being said, the trope keeps coming back due to the fact that it allows you to jump right into the beginning of an adventure with little to no effort from either side of the screen.

Personally, I prefer for my parties to have some awareness of each other before they set forth on their first adventure together. This can be handled in a multitude of ways, but the method that I prefer is loosely based upon Fiasco‘s Set-Up.

The process works like this. During Session Zero, after everyone has created their characters, they will take turns defining the relationships they have with their fellow adventurers. On each turn, a player can perform one of the two following actions:

  1. Define the basic relationship their character has with the character on either side of them.
  2. Specify the exact nature of an already defined relationship their character has with another character.

This continues until every character has two specific relationships with two other characters within the party. The relationships can be just about anything the players can possibly imagine. The characters could be siblings, lovers, business associates, or even rivals. The goal is to have a group who has some knowledge of each other, have some reason to band together, and give the GM some possible hooks for future adventures.

You don’t have to be this structured with your approach to creating a party with pre-existing relationships. I just enjoy making a small mini-game out of the process. The biggest piece of advice I can give you about establishing these relationships, whether you use the method detailed above or one your more comfortable with, is to make sure the relationships actually have some meat to them, presenting some interesting elements for future stories in the campaign. Don’t be afraid to toss in a little bit of conflict, whether it be between the two characters, or from how the world reacts to the relationship.

I would also suggest having one shared element between all the characters. This could be something as simple as them all being from the same village, having a common acquaintance, or being present for a strange event. This shared event will most likely be tied to the first adventure of the campaign, giving them a reason to participate that relates to them personally.

How do you like to get your adventuring bands together? Do you like them to have pre-existing relationships, or be strangers? Tell me in the comments below.