Collaborating with players in D&D

I’ve been running Out of the Abyss for my regular Dungeons & Dragons group. The adventure takes place in the Underdark, a vast series of subterranean tunnels and caverns inhabited by strange and often dangerous creatures. The adventure involves a lot of time travelling through caves between settlements, which I’ve found can be a bit tedious. Trips between different settlements can mean weeks of travel, which might mean four or five sessions if you run them as the published material suggests.

The last three sessions, my group has been travelling between the dwarven city of Gracklestugh and the trading post of Mantol Derith. For the start of the journey I useds an encounter from the book involving gnolls and hook horrors. For the next two sessions I tried something different. I gave each player the opportunity to nominate something that I needed to include in the journey. Once I had included all of them, the journey would be finished. Not everyone made a suggestion, and a couple of players gave me more than one option, but the list I ended up with was:

  • an elven community
  • a Belt of Dwarvenkind (which gives the wearer some dwarven qualities such as resistance to poison)
  • a Tome of the Stilled Tongue (a powerful and dangerous spell book associated with the evil god Vecna)
  • more information about the influence of the demon lord, Demogorgon
  • a giant goat

In doing this I wanted to reinforce to my players that they can contribute to telling the story, and that they can set challenges for me as the dungeon master. I’m also trying to find ways to make sure there is something for everyone in the adventurer. I’m pretty happy with how it went, and I would definitely use this method again.

In the first session the party met a group of surface elves who said they were investigating the influence of the demon lords (including Demogorgon) – but they turned out to be controlled by a mad mindflayer. Our githzerai monk ended up tracking down their master, who was unconvincingly disguised as a dwarven doctor, using a belt of dwarvenkind.

During the final journey session I had the party stumble across a disciple of Vecna who was was about to sacrifice a giant goat in a dark ritual. The elf fighter tried to rescue the the goat, which created tension in the group because the party cleric is also a disciple of Vecna and wanted to help her fellow devotee.

Many sessions ago, when the rest of the party had found out that their cleric was a follower of Vecna, they had forced her to eat a Tome of the Stilled Tongue that she had obtained. Her fellow devotee ended up reaching into her body and pulling the book out intact. The cleric then ended up losing the book again, but there’s a strong possibility that the book will be back and will have an important role to play. Interestingly, after that session it seems like the cleric is wanting their character to pursue a new (less evil) direction.

What I liked about these sessions is that they have felt a lot more collaborative and they’ve been unique to our group. I included a little bit of content from the published book we’re using, but the rest is stuff we’ve come up with ourselves together.

D&D player character race options

Even though I run 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons games most weeks, I don’t know all the rules that well. For that reason I’ve just been reading over the Player’s Handbook again. Tonight I’ve been particularly looking over the player character race options. I find that players will have questions for me about their race or class features. Often I can’t answer them because I don’t play as a player character often so I’m not familiar with the races and classes. These are my notes about what I think I need to remember about the player race options in the Player’s Handbook. I haven’t paid as much attention to proficiencies or ability score increases, because I presume players will have these added on their character sheets.

Dwarves

As a dungeon master I need to remember that all dwarves have advantage to saving throws against poison as well as resistance against poison damage. Since a lot of people seem to play as dwarves, I don’t find this is hard to remember.

Elves

Because elves also seem to be a very popular option, I find their features are pretty easy to remember. Elves have advantage on saving throws against being charmed and they can’t be put to sleep by magical means. Elves also don’t need sleep. I find that this feature is really easy to remember because if there’s an elf in the party they will often mention it whenever the party rests

There’s a lot of variance in the elf subraces. High elves gain one wizard cantrip. Wood elves can hide when they are obscured by a natural phenomenon. Dark elves are sensitive to sunlight and gain specific spells at at 1st, 3rd and 5th levels.

Halflings

Even though halflings are one of the most common races, I think I’ve only ever had one regular player choose to play as a halfling, so I’m less familiar with their traits. It’s easy to remember that halflings can reroll attacks and saving throws if they roll a 1. I haven’t always remembered that they can also move through the space of any creature that is larger than them.

The halfling subraces don’t have as much variance as the elf ones do, and I think they should be easy to remember because they are similar to abilities from other races. Lightfoot halflings can hide whenever they are obscured by another creature that is at least one size larger than them, similar to the wood elf’s hiding feature. Stout halflings have advantage to saving throws against poison as well as resistance against poison damage, just like dwarves do.

Humans

I personally think humans are the least interesting player race option. They don’t have any features that make them stand out, other than a boost to all of their ability scores or the variant option that allows for a feat. The party I’m dungeon mastering for does not currently contain any humans, and I’ve rarely had any players who wanted to play as humans.

Dragonborn

As a dungeon master, the main thing I need to remember about dragonborn characters is that they gain a breath weapon (which recharges after a short of long rest) and a damage resistance based on the kind of dragon they are descended from. Since the breath weapon is going to be one of their most effective attacks, I find that players normally become familiar with this feature pretty quickly.

Gnomes

Gnomes are probably my favourite race option, at least among those in the Player’s Handbook. All gnomes have advantage on Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma saving throws against magic.

Both of the gnome subraces in the Player’s Handbook have a couple of features that I think are important to remember. Forest gnomes can cast minor illusion and can also communicate with small animals. Rock gnomes can add their proficiency bonus twice to any Intelligence (History) check related to magical, alchemical or technological objects. Rock gnomes can also use their tool proficiency to make a few different kinds of simple mechanical items.

Half-elves

If you’re familiar with the features of elves, it’s not hard to remember the features for half-elves. Like elves, half-elves have advantage on saving throws against being charmed and they can’t be put to sleep by magical means.

Half-orcs

When a half-orc character drops to 0 hit points but isn’t immediately killed by the damage they’ve taken, they can instead drop to just 1 hit point – but this can’t be repeated until after a long rest. Half-orc characters also get to add another extra damage die whenever they make a critical hit.

Tieflings

Tieflings have resistance to fire damage, and they gain specific spells at 1st, 3rd and 5th levels just like dark elves do.

Having read over these racial features and summarised them, I feel a lot more confident with them and I’ve been surprised at how much was already pretty familiar. Next I’ll probably have a look at some of the class features, because there are some that I’m not currently confident about.

Here’s the Chant: planar diseases, gods and sad penguins

I normally write a roundup post on Wednesday, drawing together a whole lot of content about roleplaying games (particularly 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons). This week got away from me a bit, so here it is on Friday:

For players

For players and DMs:

  • ‘The Path of Notes’ Monte Cook Games – this article looks at how the game Invisible Sun has been designed so that players have got to take notes, which will end up becoming a memento of their adventure

For DMs:

Content I’ve published recently:

  • ‘Goofy Descends into Hell’ – in the most recent Planescape adventure I played in, we used the Open Legend system instead of D&D
  • ‘#Dungeondrawingdudes: Week 3’ – each day this month I’ve been participating in the #Dungeondrawingdudes challenge, so there’s now three weeks worth of my illustrations (like this tiefling street-performer), which you can download use in your home game 
  • ‘A Cheeky Response to #Dungeondrawingdudes’ – I thought one of the #Dungeondrawingdudes challenges was a bit disrespectful, so I made a cheeky response
  • ‘Redcaps and Violence’ – #Dungeondrawingdudes and Nerdarchy got me thinking about redcaps and the tendency of violence to escalate
  • ‘Valley of Eternity: The Hunt’ – last week I had my first attempt at running a game of Valley of Eternity, the existentialist penguin roleplaying game

Goofy descends into Hell: My first experience of Open Legend

Last Sunday I played using the Open Legend system for the first time. Our dungeonmaster has been keen to run a Planescape adventure about breaking out of the prison-plane of Carceri, but hasn’t been finding that Dungeons & Dragons rules promote roleplay or collaboration as much as she’d like.

Having a look at the rules, what I like is that character creation is very flexible. Rather than offering classes and races for a specific kind of setting, there are a whole lot of basic character attributes that can be used in different ways. You could use the ‘Alternate Form’ feat to make a lycanthropic character or a shapeshifting druid. You could use the ‘Companion’ feat to represent a character’s hired bodyguard or an animal companion or a sibling who tags along for adventures. So it’s very modular, very flexible. Because there’s no detailed flavour tied to the attributes, you can use them for a whole bunch of genres and settings, or for a mashup of genres and settings. That meant we were able to have an adventuring party consisting of a halfling, an orc and an anthropomorphic cartoon dog.


I think the downside of the openness and flexibility is that the game can depend a lot on the ability of the players to get their character across. In our adventure, I was playing a psionic orc and another player was a shady halfling. The third player, when he was told he could play as anything or anyone, said, ‘I’ll be Goofy.’ I think that was actually really helpful because we know who he is and what he’s like, and we get how cartoon slapstick works. He was able to get the character concept across easily by having Goofy walk up imaginary stairs or elongate his arms in order to catch falling adventurers. I think my psionic orc and the sinister halfling were less clear, so it was harder to get into the swing of things.

Back to the positive: another thing that makes Open Legend stand out if the way that dice ‘explode’. If you roll a die, whether it’s a d4 or a d20, maximum rolls are repeated and added. So If you had to roll a d20 and a 1d6 and rolled a 20 and a 3, you’d expect to get a score of 23. But because you rolled a 20 on the d20, you would roll the d20 again and add the result to the 23. If you rolled another 20, it would explode again. The same thing would happen with the d6 if you had rolled a 6 – you’d roll it again and add the result to your score. This means that you can end up with some really high scores and results, and it means the game really lends itself to characters every now and then managing ridiculous, epic achievements.

* * *

If you want to check out Open Legend, the rules are available for free on their website. You can also try out their free, play-to-learn adventure, ‘A Star Once Fallen’ or support their Kickstarter campaign to publish their Amaurea’s Dawn adventure setting.

Death in D&D

I’ve been thinking about death in Dungeons & Dragons, partly because of a funeral I went to a little while ago. My understanding is that the person whose funeral we were attending shouldn’t have died. He wasn’t very old. There’s a suspect being tried in relation to the death later in the year. So you would be able to understand, there was a lot of grief.

Reflecting on the funeral got me thinking, How is it that we can sometimes approach death so blithely in a game? Normally what you do is just write up another character sheet and continue the adventure with a new character. If you put a lot of work and time into the character you’d proabbly be annoyed, but that’s it. I wonder if there are any ways that we could remind ourselves of the gravity of death when we play?


These are a few ideas I had:

  • We could suggest that surviving adventurers attempt to return the dead to their relatives. This would probably mean having to face the anger and grief of bereaved loved ones.
  • We could roleplay a funeral for the deceased character.
  • We could have each surviving character make a speech about the deceased.
  • We could roleplay a wake after the funeral where the characters speculate about what happens to the souls of the dead.
  • We could allow the death of an adventurer to direct the future path of the story, by having the surviving characters drawn into a quest for restribution.

One of the reasons I’ve been thinking about this is because of Henri Nouwen’s ideas about the illusion of immortality. He believed that our society often tries to avoid recognising the transience of life. Just like attending a funeral should help us to come to terms with our own mortality (as well as expressing our grief for the dead), roleplaying could give us opportunities to reflect on our own mortality. (Not everyone’s game needs to do that – but the opportunity is there.)

Can you think of any other ways to make death carry weight in the game?

Faerieland and escapism

On Saturdays I’m normally posting monster illustrations that I make for Dungeons & Dragons games. Yesterday I thought I’d ask on Twitter what folks thought I should draw:

In the tiebreaker, fey ended up coming out on top, so this post contains some fey creatures I’ve drawn. (Two are from Tales from the Yawning Portal. Two are from Tales Trees Tell, which is probably the next adventure I’ll run.)

In D&D, fey are creatures from a parallel plane of existance (called the Feywild), which mirrors the material world, but in a more extreme and spectatular way. Adventurers from the material plane who travel to the Feywild often find that when they return home inordinate amounts of time have passed. Some find that they are so enchanted by the wondrous surroundings that they never return home.

I think this could lead us to ask a question about gaming and fantasy literature: Is it a form of escapism that enables us to avoid everyday life? Do we become so absorbed fantasy worlds that we allow real life to move on without us?

Nereid: 


Siren:

Green hag:

Pixie: