Critical Roll Options

Critical hits and misses are the blessing and curse of a roleplayer. They can provide classic moments when a character shines in combat, or fails so atrociously that the scene runs like a slapstick action scene from a silent film.

Often though, the results can be underwhelming, with critical hits still doing less damage than expected or a critical miss that passes by without comment.

I enjoy improvising critical miss effects but the decisions are inconsistent, so I wanted to create a system that the player could roll to determine the outcome. I also read comments online about how critical miss consequences were unfair to fighter classes who are more likely to suffer from these effects.

This set of simple rules using a single d6 die aims to add the possibility of an awesome critical hit as well as provide rollable consequences for a critical miss. By doing both, the combat system remains balanced but adds exciting possibilities to the mix!

Each table has a 50% chance of not adding any effect, meaning the critical hit doubles the dice damage as usual, or the critical miss does not affect the player’s actions beyond missing their opponent. If they roll the other 50% though, things get interesting…!

The tables are available for free from DMs Guild. Why not spice up your criticals in your next session!

Character Diaries – Honour

Character image created by brianvadell.

I recently had the pleasure of reprising a character for Part 3 of the Jungle of Nocturnal Madness – a very inventive roleplay taking place in a land where chaos has taken hold and many ancients secrets lie in the jungle. Here is my character’s take on the events:

Extract from The Diary of Sir Rengar

Karunam is a curious city, built like a societal pyramid with the poor inhabiting the outside sector (sector 3), those with good financial and social status in the second sector, and the masters of the city at the very top, literally, of the city in Sector 1.  I appreciate the hierarchical order of things as it means everyone knows where they belong in order for society to function.  This is good so long as the foundations are strong.  However, we have heard strong rumours of corruption and have witnessed the poverty and slavery of Sector 3 with our own eyes.

Since I have arrived, I have helped the two Drow siblings Missiozin and Nel handle matters with their Father, who is the leader of some sort of order.  He has the same chaotic but kindly spirit of his offspring.  He appears to want change for the good of those around him and at the expense of the Masters who run the place.  I feel very conflicted working with him, as although he tries to improve peoples’ lives, he takes on contracts for unnamed clients to rescue prisoners.  This sounds distinctly dodgy to me!

Still, they needed my strength and I am very lowly thought of in this strange place, so I took it on.  Working with a mage, we allowed ourselves to become gaseus forms and squeezed through gaps to get into this prison.  Once in we found a heavy door barring our way.  I attempted to use my strength and started to force the door open, only for the wee mage to finish the job with one hand!  My feeling of inadequacy was complete!

We didn’t find our target (Someone called Gabbot) but instead found a large Earth Genasi who I vaguely recognised, as if from a past life.   He was chained up and seemed unhinged.  We decided to break him out and hoped that he could help us navigate the mines.  Once released, he took to wearing his chain as a sort of garment and called himself ‘The Unchained’.  What had we let ourselves in for?!

We followed him as he wondered through the tunnels, attacking anyone he came across.  His thirst for vengeance made for a busy journey but eventually we found a chamber with many bound prisoners.  They claimed that they didn’t know what they were meant to be digging for.  The whole operation seemed very suspicious!  We released them and deciding they were our burden now, we looked for a way out.  We also found a ‘death room’, and my wizened colleague recognised Gabbot among them.  We wondered further up the passageway, but my comrades were blown off their feet by a well place fireball!  They spoke of three ogres and a deep pit.  I prepared a spell of my own, but upon my gaze the image melted away and only a mage was left.  Our mage took the bull by the horns, if I may say so, and polymorphed the chap into a snail!  I made to snatch it up, but it disappeared and suddenly I felt a blade cut my leg.  An invisible fiend!  The Unchained launched his ranged metallic rings and they wrapped around the sneak as if it were a Christmas tree!  I sat on him whilst they finished him off.  As for the snail, we named it Sally. 

We reported our mission to the client, who thought it was an utter failure.  Not so!  We rescued many slaves and recruited the services of ‘The Unchained’!  Back out in the open,  Sector 2 was celebrating the Festival of the Orb.  The orb is an object kept in the middle of the city (in Sector 1) and is said to be incredible.  I have already felt a strange euphoric feeling more than once that is uncommon for me outside of dealing out righteous justice.  We stopped at a tavern to allow The Unchained his first drink in many months.  In this premises, I learned that the Beast Games were being held at this time, where warrior and beast would do battle for glory.  Interesting but not relevant to our current mission.  Then, a keen young man in a guard’s uniform approached me asking if he could join us our party.  His name was Mano and it seemed he wanted to redeem his honour after he was acquitted for a crime he didn’t commit.  My heart went out to the chap and I felt I had found a kindred spirit in this strong city.

We entered the Beast Games taking on creatures found in the jungle.  Mano was a very useful fighter, striking well with every strike of his longsword.  Finally we faced off with a giant lizard, which could fire a strange chained weapon from a distance.  We quickly closed the gap between us and dealt with him from close range.  Through the blood and the sweat, it was warming to hear the crowd shout our names as if we were worthy of their support.

The best was yet to come.  We were escorted through the city by Mano’s fellow guards and handed off to special guards in Sector 1.  There we entered the palace, which was magnificent with its shiny marble domes and archways.  All the while the euphoric sensation was growing inside of me that was much greater than winning a bout with a beast.  Finally we were in the presence of the orb itself… word cannot describe the joy and majesty of the thing.  Let us just say that I have been positively scarred for life!

I left the rejuvenated Mano as he re-joined his regiment and sought out my adventuring companions.  I found them as guests in the house of a rich merchant in Sector 2.  It seemed he wanted our services to discover some artefacts from the jungle.  This wasn’t all that strange, as gold and steel were uncommon in the town but could be found in the ruins and temples beyond.  My companions didn’t seem to trustworthy especially when we were to be ‘escorted’ by five rough-looking mercenaries. 

On our way to the docks, we stopped by the market for supplies.  Nel made a break for it, setting a chain of events in motion.  A fellow paladin in the party stood up to the mercenaries whilst the others made a run for it.  I decided to drink a gaseus form potion and disappear from view.  I admit that I didn’t want my newly-boosted reputation to be tarnished by being seen to be fighting in the marketplace.  I feel ashamed by this – it was not the act of a brave paladin, more the excuses of an egomaniac!   Fortunately for me, the others dealt with the mercenaries and we were able to get away.

And so we find ourselves in the jungle once more.  I am delighted to renew my travels with Sgt Pepper, the loyal Water Genasi soldier from Karinspire.  I am also here with two highly intelligent scholars who are keen to get to the bottom of why the original society that built the temples crumbled.  We are looking for a little-known temple that may hold the answers we seek.


For a recent one-shot, I was co-GM and we wanted to provide a 1920s setting.  The idea was always going to be gangsters against cops in America during the prohibition on selling alcohol.  There was a twist, however.  What if a new gang was active in town, one that had grander plans…

This was the challenge we set ourselves.  So I came up with a system inspired by other one-shots I had watched, including Dungeon World, Impulse Drive and the one page roleplays created by Grant Howitt.

The idea behind the system was to keep the structure simple.  I structured it around two types of dice.  A d12 for carrying out an action, and an additional d6 if the player has a Skill they can apply to that action.  Each player has a Life Force score, representing the number of hits or attacks a character can take.  Then there are five Core Stats that are added to any action, depending on how mentally strong, knowledgeable, charming, agile or physically strong the character is.

The players made their characters beforehand and quickly learned their way around the system, asking to apply skills and rolling their actions in turn.  This enabled them to carry out their teams objectives whilst investigating the new gang.  The final twist took them by surprise however.  They tied a cult leader to the fiancé of a nouveau riche gentleman and made their way to his mansion.  The chemical effects of the spiked drinks and the tragic history of the building brought into being the summoning of an otherworldly monster who tore at all in his path.  They managed to send the alien beast back to the furthest planes from which it came from, but not before it could drag one of the gangsters with it. 

The system proved successful, being both easy to use and working with the theme; that of 1920s America.  As for a sequel, it’s difficult to follow that plotline and I think we’ll pick a different story and a different theme for next time.

If interested, Story-Noir is available to use on a ‘Pay What You Want’ amount.  If you do play, please let me know what you think.

The Inspiration of Chance and Improvisation

Dice roll tables and rolleable options can make up a great deal of the choices in Roleplaying sessions. The results of a sea voyage, chance encounters on the road to the next town, loot found in the room of a dungeon. The random element keeps things exciting. For a Games or Dungeon Master it can mean the plotline changes or lengthens, but so long as they are comfortable with that, then great.

Another crucial part of roleplay is the interactive story-telling. If you take part in a roleplay you are actively improvising. Worldly examples include the TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway and Robin Williams when he was creating characters like the Genie from Disney’s Aladdin.

I am lucky enough to take part in an improvisation session every fortnight. This is good for my vocal performance work but also complements roleplaying perfectly. The sessions with Rag and Bone Arts are such fun and so good at keeping you on your toes. Not only that, but they teach collaboration. If you are not working together then the story will go nowhere or one person will dominate and the story will suffer. In one scenario you might be a shop owner only speaking in questions, the next a gang of ex-pop stars in a dystopian future under an authoritarian regime. Maybe you are trying to sell beer dregs and cat hair marketing it as the new trendy drink or perhaps you find yourself as Juliet in a modern retelling of the classic tale. Yes, we played all these scenarios out and many more!

Roleplaying is about interactive storytelling and it includes all the above ingredients.

Making Combat Challenging

A lot is made of level-appropriate material.  In D&D combat, this term is referred to as CR (Challenge Rating).  A level 4 party will be roasted alive by an ancient dragon, but will also make meaty fries out of a similarly-sized party of goblins. To avoid Total Party Kill (TPK) or Total Party Boredom, the GM/DM has plenty of options…

Find a suitable opponent
The Critical Rating is made for this.  For example, a few Manticore will provide a good battle for five level 4 adventurers.

Add more fodder until they are dangerous
A band of goblins are easy to kill off, but not so easy when they can attack 3 times more than the players can.

Strategic advantage
Weaker opponents on a flat field or dungeon floor will be easy.  But what if they are ambushing the party and get surprise attacks?  Perhaps they have the high ground and ranged weapons or you are on uneven terrain that only your opponent can move across easily. Increase the odds against the players even further by having them stealth so as not to wake even more opponents or you could have traps in place in case they charge in unprepared.

Modified creatures
If the monsters are too weak, why not give them an extra arm, a magical weapon or poisoned arrows to increase their abilities. If the monsters are too powerful, then make them aged, young or mentally addled in some way, giving them disadvantages on their rolls.  Want the creature to have a special move not in the rulebooks?  Go for it!  If it makes the combat interesting, then why not!

Playing loose
This option is fun, if played right. Create creatures with only a few stats and hit points firmly decided, and be flexible with the rest, such as their moves and attacks.  This option is a way of keeping the players on their toes and making combat challenging. However, this option can backfire is done too often; especially if it appears to directly counteract the player’s moves (e.g. “aha, it is actually immune to damage by your fireball and your ranged weapons!”).  The important thing is to have an idea of what this creature is capable of and then improvising how it might react in a fight.

As always, the most important thing is for the players to have fun.  So long as the combat element of the game is varied then they will have plenty to sink their sword or arrows into.

Magic Users, Part II

How Characters Cast Spells

In Part I, I discussed the types of spellcasters and how they interacted with magic in the fantasy realm. It’s time to look at the mechanics of spellcasting.  How does it work in practice?

Here are the basics…

  1. Prepared spells:  Some spellcasters need to prepare spell for the day from a greater resource they have access to.
  2. Known spells:  Some spellcasters learn spells until they know them, meaning they do not need to prepare them in advance.
  3. Spell Slots:  Most spellcasters have Spell Slots (Monks are the exception), which represent their capacity to cast spells before their magic is used up and they need to replenish their energy.
  4. Spell Modifier:  All spellcasters use a modifier to work out how effective their spells are.  This affects their Spell Attack rolls and rolls for the Spell’s Difficulty Class for opponents to try and match or get a higher result when they roll a saving throw.

Each character class or sub class is a little different, so let’s compare…

Bards don’t study magic, they take what they know and perform. For that reason, bards have known spells and a charisma modifier.

Clerics are conduits for divine power.  They use Wisdom as a modifier.  They can cast any cleric spell available up to their current spell level, but need to have them prepared.  This is their Wisdom modifier + Cleric Level.

Druids draw on nature, as clerics draw on the divine.   They use Wisdom as a modifier.  They can cast any druid spell available up to their current spell level, but need to have them prepared.  This is their Wisdom modifier + Druid Level.

Eldritch Knight is a subclass of the Fighter.  Like Bards, they have known spells they learn as they improve and apply to their fighting style.  They draw from the wizarding spells and their modifier is Intelligence.

Monks learn to use magical energy called Ki.  They channel this energy in their martial art practices uses Ki Points.  The subclass Way of the Four Elements can cast elemental spells using Ki points.  Like Bards and Eldritch Knights, these become Known but are referred to as Elemental Disciplines and not spells.  They use a Wisdom modifier to determine out how effective their spells are.

Paladins learn to draw on divine magic as clerics do.  They use Charisma as a modifier.  They can cast any cleric spell available up to their current spell level, but need to have them prepared.  This is their Charisma modifier + half the Paladin’s Level.

Rangers learn to draw on nature as Druids do. But they behave far more like Bards and Eldritch Knights, applying what they have learned and using their Known Spell, learning more as they level up.  They use a Wisdom modifier.

Arcane Trickster is a subclass of the Rogue.  Like Bards and Rangers, they don’t study magic, they take what they learn and apply it. For that reason, these Rogues have known spells .  They use an Intelligence modifier.

Sorcerers have no need to study as magic is in their veins. Very much like Bards, they perform what they know.  Because of this, Sorcerers have known spells and a charisma modifier.  They also have Sorcerer Points, which can be used to enhance their spells in some way.

Warlocks are peculiar because although they have spell slots, all of these slots are the same level as their current spell level. They can still cast lower level spells but they will be using a higher level spell slot to do it.  They perform the gifts of their patron, so like Bards, they have known spells and a charisma modifier.

Wizards are the students of magic and draw from a spellbook to prepare spells (They should also use physical components as part of the spells’ preparations but not all roleplays apply this).  Because of this their known spells are whatever spells are in their spellbook, so researching and finding spell scrolls can be exciting!  They use the Intelligence modifier.  The number of spells they can prepare is their Intelligence modifier + Wizard Level.

Magic Users, Part I

Why spells can give players a headache!

Magic is as integral to D&D as dragons and faeries. It allows for anything to be possible; from creatures with strange, otherworldly abilities, to travel between planes, to crazy spells such as being able to polymorph into a dinosaur! But, to paraphrase a well-known superhero movie, with great power comes a great deal of rules!

The 5th edition rules for D&D have tried to keep spellcasting (using magic to affect something) as simple as possible, but it still takes some getting used to. That’s what we’re here to do…

In this first article, I’ll look at the different types of spellcasters.

Your spellcasters come under the following types…

1) those who have a natural gift for magic  2) those who study it  3) Those who are blessed with magical powers for their beliefs  4) Those who pick it up as they go along

The natural
The sorcerer is the gifted magic user, who has through some cosmic reason or exotic lineage been chosen to carry such power.

The student
Wizards are keen to master magic and require spell books to record what they have learned and to prepare their daily spells. Eldritch Knights also study magical techniques to enhance their fighting prowess. Monks learn to channel magical energy known as ki.

The blessed
Clerics and Paladins draw on the divine magic of their deity. Warlocks gain powers in return for serving their patron (an otherworldly being).  Barbarian Totem Warriors also gain gifts through their spirit animal. With nature as their muse, Druids and Rangers learn to use magic from their environment.


The knack
Gifted performers known as Bards learn tricks on the road as they perform and can weave magic with their music. The Rogue type, Arcane Tricksters also learn tricks which enhance their shadowy lifestyle.

That’s enough magic talk for now.  If you want to discuss anything in particular, let me know.  Next time, we get into the rules…

What’s the most important part of being a good DM?

Every Dungeon Master (DM) is different and their style and craft grows just as their players learn and grow together. A lot has been said online about learning to DM, including Matthew Colville in his introductory video on his YouTube channel.

There are many skills DMs can improve and hone over time, such as story-telling, improvisation, characterization, learning and adapting rules as well as diplomacy with a party of players who aren’t getting along.  It can be exhausting building worlds and frustrating swapping out plots they made for new ones the players choose to follow.   But it can also be very rewarding.

So what is the most important part of being a DM?  A sense of humour is important, for sure.  Patience is definitely a virtue.  Imagination is very important and adaptability vital.  But to outline what I consider the most important factor in being a good DM, watch DM Matthew Mercer in the following classic clips from Critical Role:

Grog and the toilet

Another clue is this scene from Episode 3, where the group is planning 

My personal answer to this question is simple; It’s listening.  It’s giving the players the space they need for their characters to grow and be creative.  The DM facilities their adventure, he does not control the players.  This means that the characters have room to interact and have brilliant moments such as those highlighted above.  It also means the DM doesn’t have to be a full-time performer, actor, comic; that would be exhausting!  Let the players play and then there is a healthy balance between player interaction and adventuring.

Delving into D&D

Saving Throws

Recently I’ve been getting a few questions regarding the mechanics of D&D and how it works. The Player’s Handbook is excellent but it is just one explanation and sometimes what might make sense to one person might baffle another.   So this series is about looking at an element of D&D and explaining it in more detail.

Let’s start with a description of Saving Throws taken from Wikipedia:

A saving throw is a roll of dice used to determine whether magic, poison, or various other types of attacks are
effective against a character or monster.

What are they for?
In D&D they are used to determine whether a character can resist or avoid the effects of a threat, such as a
trap, drinking poison or being charmed by another creature.

How do they work?

When the Dungeon Master (DM) reveals a threat to the player, they will be asked to roll a saving throw based on one of their character’s attributes.  But which one?

Here are the 6 attributes as described by the Player’s Handbook, p.173:

Strength – measuring physical power
Dexterity – measuring agility
Constitution – measuring endurance
Intelligence – measuring reasoning and memory
Wisdom – measuring perception and insight
Charisma – measuring force of personality

I’ve listed 20 possible scenarios below and sorted them into the attribute the character needs to save against.  Next to that is the reason why that attribute is the one being used.

How do you roll a saving throw?

You roll a saving throw against a difficulty class given by the DM.  Often these are pre-determined; for example a monster’s attack effects (Beholder’s eye ray effects have a difficulty class is 16) or a magic user’s spells (8 + spell
caster’s ability modifier + proficiency bonus).

For difficulty classes not pre-determined, it is up to the DM to decide how difficult it is to avoid or
resist the threat. These range from very easy (difficulty class of 5) to nearly impossible (dc of 30).  The DM should
also say what character attribute it is against.

Now you know what you are rolling against, you roll a d20 die and add you attribute modifier.  If your character class has proficiency against that attribute, you add their proficiency number to the die roll.  For example, a Level 3 Wizard with intelligence of 16 needs to try and pass an intelligence save.  His intelligence modifier is +3 and as a
Level 3 wizard he can add his proficiency of 2. So his saving throw is 1d20 +5.

If the saving throw equals or is greater than the difficulty class, then they successfully save.  This normally results in avoiding or reducing the effects that were threatening them.

So does it matter what attribute to use when making a saving throw?

Yes, it will matter to the character making the save.  Each class has proficiency in saving throws for two attributes (see list on p.145 of the Player’s Handbook).  Here is an example:

Meet Pevel, a Level 5 rogue from my online RP campaign, Agora Core.  Rogues have proficiency in saving throws for  Dexterity and Intelligence.

In this example, Pevel is being attacked by a Beholder (yikes!).  The Beholder can attack with its many eye rays.  Let’s blast Pevel 10 times with 2 different eye rays. The first time through, we will use the Petrification Ray, which requires
a Dexterity saving throw.  Then we will repeat the dice rolls but this time, we will use the Sleep Ray, which requires
a Wisdom saving throw.  For both, the difficulty class is 16.

Pevel’s rolls without adding modifiers are:

13, 5, 1, 6, 12, 7, 14, 20, 18, 17

Against the Petrification Ray, Pevel uses his Dexterity saving throw.  As a Level 5 rogue, he add his proficiency, which is +3. So with his Dexterity modifier, his saving throw is 1d20 + 6.

That means his saving throws rolls are:

19, 11, Nat 1, 12, 18, 13, 20, Nat 20, 24, 23

Against the Sleep Ray, Pevel uses his Wisdom saving throw.  As a Level 5 rogue he is not proficient in Wisdom, so simply adds his Wisdom modifier.  He saving throw is 1d20 + 1.  That means his saving throw rolls were:

14, 6, Nat 1, 7, 13, 8, 15, Nat 20, 19, 18

The difference between the two results shows how your chances of success vary depending on your character’s attributes and class.  For the Dexterity saving throw in which Pevel was proficient, he successful rolled 16 or more 6/10 times.  But for the Wisdom he only succeeded 3/10 times.

What if there is no threat?

If there is no threat, then the character is not reacting to imminent danger to their life.  Any actions they take become an Ability Check instead.  These still use the core 6 attributes, but more often than not use skills, which character can have proficiency in.  For example, spotting a trap is a Perception Check (Wisdom-based), and working out how to disarm it with an Investigation Check (Intelligence-based).

D&D Cliches

I really enjoyed a recent YouTube video by WebDM that discussed turning D&D clichés into adventuring gold.  Most players and Dungeon Masters will recognize the damsel in distress, or the humble beginnings of a party meeting in a tavern. But how should the DM handle the story when using these tricky, well used adventuring paths?

The main takeaway point from the Web DM was to explore the origin of the cliché as it probably became a cliché for good reason. The cited the source material of Conan as being quite different to the lumbering, muscle-head most imagine. In fact, Conan’s savagery is very adaptable and he was a skilled thief among other things.

I always like to think of impersonating someone. If everyone impersonated the impersonator they had just heard, then very soon the resulting voice would be over the top and very one-dimensional; completely separate from the depth and tone of the original.

The other idea Web DM played with was using the player’s assumptions against them. For example, if the players believe the cliché that a damsel is imprisoned by a great beast, then they will not suspect that the ‘damsel’ is in fact sorceress who has captured the dragon.

So let’s look at the clichés that Web DM explored.  I’ve compiled them into a table and added my own thoughts as well.

Overall, I’d say try to avoid too many clichés, but when going over familiar ground, look for the originality in it and don’t apologize for it.  If players only see a classic storyline, use that to unbalance their perceptions later on!