Here’s the Chant: revisiting Phandalin, earthy elves and a boat mimic

I haven’t written any D&D roundup posts for a few weeks. Actually, I haven’t written much for a few weeks! I ended up a bit exhausted and needed to rest, and I was also away at Lake Mungo for a little while. I think I’m not ready to get back into regular posting. So here’s a roundup of content related to roleplaying games, particularly Dungeons & Dragons.

For dungeon masters and players:

For dunegon masters:

  • ‘Dealing with Difficult Topics in RPGs’ Tribality – this article looks at how to handle topics that players may not want to explore – particularly by using a session zero to establish a social contract between your gaming group
  • ‘Artifacts of Primordial Power’ Kobold Press – a few magical items infused with elemental power
  • ‘How much setting detail is appropriate?’ RPG Knights – this blog entry looks at how you can get bogged down by too much detail about your roleplaying game setting
  • ‘Memorable Villains’ The Yawning Portal – this post shows how you can build up anticipation in the lead-up to introducing your main villain
  • ‘Bosses that Don’t Suck’ Monster Manuel – this article looks at how you can make sure your boss monsters are deadly but not unbeatable
  • ‘New Elves’ Trollish Delver – this article presents a fresh, earthy take on elves
  • ‘Examining Phandelver: Side Quests’ Merric’s Musings – this blog post looks at the side quests in D&D 5th edition’s introductory adventure, Lost Mine of Phandelver. I’ve recently been running In Volo’s Wake, which also takes place in the frontier town of Phandalin, which creates an opportunity to reuse some of these subplots.
  • ‘Lonely Boat’ Nerdarchy – this article looks at how to use a mimic disguised as a boat – pretty much like the pirate’s mimic I drew earlier in the year: 
  • ‘Creatures of Commander 2017 in D&D’ Kor Artificer – this article presents stat blocks for some of the creatures from Magic: The Gathering‘s upcoming Commander set
  • ‘Sewers and Cesspits’ Elf Maids & Octopi – here are a couple of extensive tables you can use to generate random items or encounters that adventurers might find whule exploring sewers
  • ’10 Stormy Events to Enhance a Battle’ Raging Swan Press – this article suggests running combat during a storm, and includes a table of ways that a storm could effect the battle

Content I’ve recently published:

  • ‘Running Vault of the Dracolich’ – on Saturday I was involved in running Vault of the Dracolich with a team of dungeon masters at Games Laboratory, and this is my reflection on the experience
  • ‘Brushing up on Basic D&D Rules’ – being involved in running a D&D event was a good incentive to get clear on the basic rules. This is a summary of what I needed to brush up on.

Brushing up on basic D&D rules

In my post on Saturday I mentioned that there were a whole lot of basic Dungeons & Dragons rules (mostly to do with combat) that I hadn’t been very clear on up until now. I’d kind of muddled along but been aware that I wasn’t being consistent. Knowing that I would be dungeon-mastering at Saturday’s event gave me a helpful deadline to get clear on the rules I wasn’t sure about. I thought I’d list the rules that I was unclear on and needed to brush up:

Armour class
See, I said these were basic rules! For some reason I had trouble remembering whether an attacker needed to roll equal to a target’s armour class in order to hit the target, or whether they needed to roll above the target’s armour class. So if a player was trying to hit a monster with an armour class of 12, and they rolled a 12 to hit, I wouldn’t be certain if they were successful or not. Now that I’ve brushed up on this rule, I know that it would hit. When you’re attacking, the number of the target’s armor class is the minimum number you can roll and still hit.
One of the things I like about 5th edition D&D is that the principle behind this rule is consistent throughout the game.

I had a similar problem remembering how grappling works. If a player tries to grapple a target character and they both roll a 15, is the grapple successful or not? Do they use their strength or dexterity? Or do they use athletics or acrobatics? (Remembering the pervious rule about armour class also helps us understand grappling, because it draws on the same principle.)
To grapple a target, you need to make an athletics check against the target’s athletics or acrobatics check. (The target gets to choose whether they want to use their athletics or acrobatics.) The grappler needs to meet or exceed the target’s roll. If the target is successfully grappled, on their turn they can try to escape by making a athletics or acrobatics check against the grappler’s athletics check, and they will succeed if they meet or exceed the score for the grappler’s strength check.

This is another rule I wasn’t sure about, but it uses the same principles as grappling. (Grappling and pushing are both classed as contests.) The character wanting to push another character can make an athletics check against that target’s athletics or acrobatics check. (Again, the target chooses between athletics and acrobatics.) The attacker must meet or exceed the target’s score in order to successfully push the target. If the attacker succeeds, they can either knock the target prone or push them back by five feet.

Stealth checks
Looking through the Player’s Handbook, I didn’t seem to be able to find a clear explanation of this rule. I think this article explains it though. If you have a character who is trying to hide from or sneak past another character, the sneaking one should roll a stealth check. Ordinarily, their stealth check should be compared to the other creatures passive perception, but if the other creature is actively looking for them it should be compared to their perception roll. If the stealth check is higher than the passive perception or perception of the other character, the sneaking one is successful at avoiding attention.

Short and long rests
The last important rule that I’ve had trouble remembering is what you recover when you have a short rest and what you recover when you have a long rest. When you have a short (one hour) rest, you can roll one or more of your available hit dice in order to recover hit points. If you take a long (eight hour) rest you regain all your hit points, as well as expended hit dice (up to half of your total hit dice). If your character is a spellcasting character, they’ll also recover spells after a long rest.
During Saturday’s game I realised a couple more basic rules I need to brush up on: rules around falling and drowning. I’d also like to get more familiar with the abilities of all the classes, particularly ones like fighter and barbarian, which I haven’t played myself.

Which D&D rules do you need to brush up on as a dungeon master or player?

Running Vault of the Dracolich

Today I was involved in running Vault of the Dracolich at Games Lab in Melbourne.

Vault of the Dracolich was a multi-table adventure originally released for the Dungeons & Dragons Next playtest, which eventually became Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. You can purchase the adventure on the Dungeon Master’s Guild here. It was originally designed for four tables, each with a different party starting in a different part of the dungeon, but I think we were running it with about 18 tables of players. As you can imagine, there were a lot of opportunities for players to run into each other and team up against monsters and cultists. I thought I’d write up some of my highlights as a dungeon master today:

A deadline to brush up on the rules

A lot of the time when I’ve been running games I haven’t been certain about particular rules and so I’ve just fudged things. It’s okay to do that, but I wouldn’t feel great about doing that at an event. I’ve meant for a while to make a list of important, basic rules that I’m not clear on and make sure I learn them properly. This event was a good incentive to do that. I’ll probably post something more detailed about that in the next few days.

Spreading of (dis)information in game 

The premise of this adventure is that the adventurers have been sent into the dungeon to get some maguffins so they can get another maguffin. Their patron has given one member of each group a crown that allows them to communicate with the other groups. (We let the person with the crown go and visit other tables to share information.) It was interesting to see this information sharing in action. For example, our group started off in an area inhabited by lizardfolk. The lizardfolk had agreed to let our party pass if they could eat their bodies when if they died. So our party passed the information on, and it eventually as shared back to us. Members of our party also spread some false information about green crystals that were found in one area having magical properties, which led to another adventurer trying to eat crystals…

Three simultaneous hydra battles

We had three parties arrive in the hydra’s den at once, so we had a short conference between the three DMs and decided to run three different versions of the same battle. Our reasoning was that running one battle with all of our players would be too easy for the players. Two of the parties had used a magical portal to travel to the hydra’s den, so we said that something strange had happened while they’d travelled, and they ended up in the same space but on different time lines to each other and to the party that was already in the area. They could see the other parties fighting other instances of the same hydra, but we didn’t let them assist neighbouring parties until they’d dealt with their own version of the hydra. (I’d suggested that we could have just had one hydra with three times as many heads, but in hindsight I think that would have been really slow to manage and not very fun.)

Holding back an undead horde

At the end of the game we rearranged all of the tables, and gave each table a task that was part of a large, epic battle. The party I ended up with was trying to hold back a horde of 28 undead, so that they undead couldn’t get to the other end of the room to reinforce a group of dark priests another party was fighting. I used a whole lot of different zombie, skeleton and vampire minis (cardboard Pathfinder minis, my own cardboard minis, plastic Magic: The Gathering minis), but they actually all had the stats of either skeletons or mummies. Because I wasn’t being clear exactly what kind of undead they were (and because there were so many) most of my players were pretty cautious about fighting them. 
Laser-cut minis

Because I’m an illustrator, I often illustrate my own miniatures, which I print out myself. For this event Games Lab were laser-cutting a whole lot of miniatures out of wood, so that players and dungeon masters could all be supplied with the miniatures we’d need. Because there aren’t a lot of aquatic snake designs around and I had drawn an aquatic snake to use at my table, Games Lab ended up using my design. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out, especially since I hadn’t designed it with laser-cutting in mind.

Getting to play with a lot of different dungeon masters and players

I think the best thing about this event was that it was a great opportunity to play with a lot of different DMs and players. Often we stick to our own groups, which have their strengths, but having an event where players were constantly changing tables, where tables were joining together when they met, and where DMs had to work together allows for the creation of a really rich story. It was also kind of helpful when tables joined up together being able to throw to the other DM rather than having to make every call or have the stats for every monster ready to go.

Paying attention to sunrise and sunset

A week ago Mehrin and I got back from an immersion trip to Lake Mungo, which was offered through the Christian Brothers, an order of the Catholic Church. Muthi Muthi woman Vicki Clark (who was part of the working group that set up our household in 2001) invites groups to come on this trip throughout the year, and you can find information about it here.

One of the things I really appreciated about the trip was the opportunity to pay more attention to sunrise and sunset as bookends to the day. On one of our days at Lake Mungo, Vicki took us out to look out over the lake as the sun gradually rose and also as it set one day. But we also saw a lot of the sunrise and sunset on other days too, because in the desert there’s not a lot to block out the view.

It’s often easy not to notice the sunrise and sunset back in the city, but I’ve been trying to pay more attention to the sunrise and sunset since we got home. I’ve been going up the street to watch it go down, and making more of a habit of stopping work after sunset. (This is important because a lot of the time I can end up working from early in the morning until 9pm or later.) I’ve gotten up just before sunrise a couple of times, but haven’t remembered to go and watch it coming up.

DMing for one player

A couple of weeks back @DungeonMasterSc tweeted a question about the minimum number of players dungeon masters need not to cancel a Dungeons & Dragons session. My response was ‘two’, and I added that I’d normally give them a non-player character to help them out.

I was challenged by @spaceseeker19’s response, so tonight when I just had one player, we played anyway. I’d been preparing the first few adventures from In Volo’s Wake, which features monsters from Volo’s Guide to Monsters, and there were a few opportunities to support our one player character (a dulcimer-playing human bard) with some NPCs. She was able to do okay on her own in the first adventure, but in the second adventure she really depended on some connections she’d made with non-player characters to save some dwarf children from gnolls. While the game lacked the inter-player dynamics, it was still worth doing, and the main non-player character (Eric the ‘hobby-adventurer’) proved fairly entertaining.

On the possibility of being racist

I’ve only really watched one of Chris Lilley’s shows, and it happened to be 2011’s Angry Boys. When I watched it, I felt a bit awkward about European-Australian comic Lilley portraying Japanese and African-American characters. I wondered how much Aboriginal people may have had a say in how their characters were portrayed. (During the show one of the Aboriginal actors ended up visiting our house because he had a cousin staying with us.) At the time I don’t remember hearing anyone asking these questions, and I appreciated that through the show Lilley seemed to be getting people to consider what might be going on behind what seemed to be a crisis of masculinity in our global society.

More recently, however, Lilley’s 2014 show Jonah from Tonga received a clear critique from Australia’s Tongan community. The problem was that ‘Jonah’ – a European man impersonating a stereotype of Tongan youth – had become the most recognisable public face of the Tongan community in Australia. It seems quite unfair for a member of the European majority to have power over how a relatively small cultural group is portrayed in the media. More recently the same show was axed by Māori Television in Aotearoa/New Zealand, by request from the Tongan community. It would be hard to imagine that Chris Lilley is still unaware that people feel he’s being racist by pretending to be a person of colour.

Last weekend Lilley was back in the public arena for the wrong reason. Just after a major protest related to the death of Elijah Doughty, Lilley tweeted a video clip from Angry Boys which seemed to be referring to Doughty’s death. Elijah Doughty was an Aboriginal boy who was run over by a European man in Kalgoorlie. It appears that the driver intended to run Doughty over, but he has been cleared of murder and manslaughter. In this context Lilley’s song ‘Squashed N***a’, about a black kid being run over, seemed like a pretty clear and dispicable reference to Doughty’s death. In response to the outcry about the video, Lilley deleted the tweet, then deleted his account. Later on he restored his account and posted an apology saying that he hadn’t meant to be racist.

I’ve dsaid this before, but we need to remember that we can’t be the only judges of whether we’ve been racist. If someone from another racial or cultural group suggests that we’ve been racist, we need to listen whether or not we’ve intended to be racist. If our words or behaviour are having a harmful impact on other cultural or racial groups we need to listen to that and change our behaviour. If Chris Lilley returns to television, I’ll be interested to see what he does. But Lilley’s disaster doesn’t let the rest of us off the hook. We need to be ready to listen when someone suggests that we’ve been racist.

Headaches and limitations

I should know this! I’ve spent enough time recovering from overwork, including a month in hospital a few years ago. Old habits die hard. I’ve had a headache for over a month, which is because a month ago I had one week that was way too busy. Well, actually, the headache it is getting better. It isn’t all day now, but for the first four weeks it was constant. I haven’t been posting here as regularly as I’d like but I’m expecting that’s probably how it’ll need to be at least this month!

Here’s the Chant: will-o’-wisps, ankhegs and cave halflings

For players or DMs:

For DMs:

For anyone wanting to reflect more deeply on game themes:

Content I’ve published recently:

50 invoices

In March 2015 I started working as a freelancer. Today I sent off my 50th invoice. I felt like it was important to mark the occassion. At the beginning of 2015 when I started winding back my regular work I felt pretty nervous. Resigning entirely at the end of that year was fairly risky. While it is often much less certain, I really like knowing that I’m doing the work that I should be and knowing that I can find my own work. Thankyou to everyone I’ve been able to work with during that time!