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!

Cooking Tips for DMs

What does cooking and D&D have in common?

Although a meal that has been made as instructed in a cook book might be perfectly good, the experience can become dull once we’re used to it. And what if you are catering for a group of friends and you want to surprise them? This is the same problem Dungeons Masters (DMs) encounter when running a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. How do they keep things interesting for players and avoid repetition?

“The dish always tastes better when you do it like this…”
This is the homebrew option. If you and your players agree that a certain rule variation makes the game more fun, then you are effectively customising it for your group the same way you might add more salt or take out an ingredient from a recipe. One example might be the old D&D 3.5 rules for a grapple. They were cumbersome and slowed down the gaming. Much easier to agree a workaround with the players to keep the action flowing. Another important area to agree on are the rules for reincarnation when a creature dies. For example, should the players have to do more to prevent the soul of their comrade from leaving the material plane?

In this example, the DM Matt Mercer of Critical Role combines the Revivify spells their cleric used with a group-assisted roll. Critical Role’s Resurrection Rules can be found here.

“Wow, I didn’t expect that!”
This is the sense of wonderment option. This is when the DM customises a monster or item to surprise the players. In catering terms, you might change the ingredients or appearance of dishes the guests are used to in order to make the meal extra special. See Satine Phoenix’ video exploring this option with Luke Gygax. For the DM, this is especially useful once the players have experience and know what to expect when facing certain creatures or finding magical items. For example, have a cold-weather hybrid of a lizardman, have tactical goblins, a giant, mutated kobold, create a monk character but make their race (or simply appearance) a dryad. As for magical items, the Wand of Wonder is a lot of fun but what about varying it with a bag of means that on a roll might provide you with what you need or could backfire and give you something useless or harmful instead

So happy cooking, whatever you decide to create next! And don’t forget that not every meal or gaming session is perfect, but with work and creativity they’ll continue to be memorable and sometimes they’ll be wonderful.

DM Notes #9

In the Roleplays you have played, what Player Characters stood out? Which ones are still memorable and why? By a stand-out character I mean player characters that were unique, and memorable in some way.

For my second choice, I pick Sir Rengar. For the campaign Jungles of Nocturnal Madness, the DMs allowed us to choose our own PC, but they had to be from specific books available in Unearthed Arcana, which is an area of D&D designed to create custom character and creatures not available in the Players Handbook or Monster Manual, in my case I was given Eberron, Waterborne and That Old Black Magic. As a race of creature, I chose a Krynn (Sea-faring race of Minotaur) and was asked to select 3 types of classes. From those, the DM selected paladin. I was excited!

For a visual idea, see this brilliant picture by brianvadell.

Sir Rengar Gutlub is a fearsome agent of order and took the Oath of the Crown, dedicating himself to society and the just laws that hold it together. In appearance he is a very resplendent bull of legend created to inspire allies and terrify agents of chaos. In his owns words, he had a privileged background but never forgot that his mother did not. He treads the line between the honest working folk and the pillars of society. In truth, he can be a bit of a hypocrite; he believes in upholding moral standards of society, but is immensely proud of his noble birth and can be arrogant and let praise go to his head.

In the first two instalments of Jungles of Nocturnal Madness, the PCs encountered each other in a sea battle between crusaders and pirates during a devastating storm. The survivors ended up on an unknown island. Sir Rengar’s mettle was tested in a jungle full of terrifying creatures (especially at night!). He battled with the need to work together with piratical chaos-agents for the greater good and survival. Without the glue that society brings, he had to refocus and found moments of chivalry and aid kept him in check. When they found a corrupt city with segregated layers of society based on wealth and status, his goal became clear – to purge the city of corruption! I’m looking forward to the next part of this saga.

DM Notes #8

In the Roleplays you have played, what Player Characters stood out? Which ones are still memorable and why?

This is the question I asked myself recently when thinking when creating new characters for my D&D modules.  I think it’s important to mention that by a stand-out character I do not mean that one character should dominate the game to the detriment of the other players, but that the player characters can certainly be unique, eccentric, dogged or their journey more poignant somehow.    For each player or viewer, they will have their own favourites and certain memories will stay with them that differ from the other players.  For example, Critical Role’s Vox Machina’s player characters are all very unique and distinctive and each had their moments to shine over the course of the campaign.

For my first choice, I am going to select a PC that I once played.  My favourite and certainly most memorable has to be Lupa.  I joined a sandbox game (a game with a very open plot based on what the characters chose to do) after the first session so I took over an NPC that they players met.  The Co-Dungeon Masters had to customise her special abilities to match her NPC background.  She was found in a glacier and could control and manipulate ice and hard rocks.  Like a Monk using Ki points in D&D 5e, the co-DMs gave her power points that she could spend each day on her abilities. It was so much fun trying to make larger objects move in this tundra-like wilderness such as throwing boulders into battle.  She was very useful in combat, but the point-based system prevented her being too overpowered.

For visual reference, I imagine her to look similar to this stunning image drawn by Anndr.

Her story didn’t go how I expected at all.  The party met a lot of refugees in the wastelands that they were unable to help. Then two of the party saw a giant rock cow marching across the landscape.  Lupa attempted to control and befriend the cow.  To all our surprise, it worked (natural 20)!  Suddenly we had a cow so big it had trees and grass growing on its back. We steered the cow back to the refugees and picked them up.  From that moment on, my mission became clear.  I was still interested in helping out the party but my priority was to look after these refugees and secure their future.  By the end of the roleplay, I had found them a home and created my own civilisation!

DM Notes #7

Meet the Players

Ralph plays Ikki.
He is an intelligent and seasoned D&D player who fancied trying something different when he chose to be Ikki, a young, adventurous bird woman.

Finn plays Orix.
He is the son of Terry.  He likes to try things in the game to see what will happen – a young player with a curious nature and lots of potential.

Terry plays Nomo.  As a player he is a committed and can communicate very well.  As his character, he is quite a fatherly figure in a way and tries to keep the balance and harmony within the group.  He is lethal with a bow.

Dan plays Pevel.
Dan is an enthusiastic roleplayer who really gets into character, so he really plays up the oafish, cowardly character of Pevel.  Pevel is useful as a rogue however (unlocking doors, being stealthy and quick-thinking).

Ben plays Hector, who is an individual and playful with a glint in his eye, both as a player and character.  When Hector is not bored or disinterested he likes to self-indulge especially in drinking wine. His character is selfish and evil but he likes the group.

Rob plays Leigheas.
He loves to laugh and hang out. He makes a lot of jokes out-of-character but is also an enthusiastic player.  He is completely different to his character, who is world-weary and feels that his god has forsaken him.   However, despite all of this, Leigheas is always determined to help the party out of danger.

DM Note #6

Story Paths

This refers to Series 2, Episode 1 of Agora Core: Gifts of Pelor.

After the party was formed, their initial actions caused the original side-stories to be cut because they were never going to be able to walk around the town of Mid-Nis as free men.

And so the possible stories and adventures had to start anew.  I really like the moment in the episode when the well does seem to have run dry.  They are sitting in a tavern having a quiet drink and wondering where to go from here.

From here, their world is both limitless and directionless.  They have no burdens apart from staying clear of Mid-Nis.
Storylines were in place but needed them to make the first move.  It was interesting to see what happened next.  Orix even mentioned becoming pirates!

By talking to Dais in the tavern they heard the local gossip that they could profit from; a new ‘grave’ site discovered in the desert landscape known as the Da and the Mid-Nis mines requiring a Kobold elimination squad.

Their visionary dreams, brought about by the mysterious ‘Summit’, gave the players personal missions.  The visions also gave them insight into other sordid activities going on.

They decided to pursue the treasures in the desert, but they may yet return to the other options.  The Kobolds may yet grow stronger and Orix showed an interest in looking in on his friend Vian who left home to go to the mysterious Mara Society.  But first, let’s see what the Da has in store…

DM Note #5

Rules for Horse Riding

This refers to Episode 5 Agora Core: Escape.

The conclusion of the episode involves the party trying to escape on horsebackPevel’s attempt has to be a series highlight.

This leads me onto today’s topic.  How do you decide how capable a Player Character (PC) is at riding a particular creature?

In version 3.5 on Dungeons & Dragons, there was a Ride skill, and so the simple way to determine if you could successfully ride a creature was for the player to roll a d20 and add their Ride skill number to the total.  If this was equal or higher than the Difficulty Class (DC) total that the Dungeon Master (DM) decided on, then the player would have succeeded.  If not, the player failed to complete the task, in this case, ride a horse.

In the 5th edition (5e) of Dungeons & Dragons there is no such thing as a Ride skill and no set way of determining
the skill according to the Player’s Handbook. Instead there are a series of ability-based skills that PCs can be proficient in – proficiency is a bonus number added to particular skills.  Here is how I applied the ability-based
skills to this task.

As the horses were no familiar with the players, they had to see compatible they were, in other words, how comfortable the horses were being handled by a PC.  I used the skill Animal Handling (a Wisdom-based skill) for this.  However, even if a horse is comfortable around a PC, that doesn’t make the character agile enough to be a rider.  So the second roll I believe the players should do is an Athletics check (a Dexterity-based skill) to see if they could
successfully get onto the horse and balance whilst the horse moves.   Both these challenges can be done against a Difficulty Class determined by the DM.   If the PC and creature have a history together I wouldn’t ask for a check to be made as the rider and horse already have this level of understanding and ability.

This was my solution to this challenge.  In the finale (episode 5) to Series 1, I just got the players to roll animal handling as we were running short of time.  To further save time, there were two levels of Difficulty to the rolI – 15 or above to start riding in 1 round (6 seconds) and 10 or above to start riding in 2 rounds (12 seconds).  In the case of Pevel his desperate second attempt was more desperate and needed a swift move, so I got him to make an additional Athletics Check as well to pull it off.

So how do other DMs and groups work out their riding skill?  Let me know.

This is the end of the DM Notes for Series 1.  I hope you’ve enjoyed the content and found some of them useful.  Stay tuned for Series 2 later in the summer.

DM Note #4b

Dealing with Death

This refers to Episode 4, Confined: Part 2 of Agora Core.

a certain event happened to one of the party in this episode… you can hear it in all its glorious, gory and somewhat hilarious details.   I should say up front that the player involved took it all really well, which was a relief.

I have to say that I’m a fan of the new Death Saving Throws used in the 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons.  The ‘3 strikes (failed throws of 10 or under on a d20) and you’re out’ approach gives a sense of drama and also provides comrades a chance to revive the fallen player.

But if this doesn’t happen – if the dice gods are not kind and allies are busy elsewhere – what happens when the Player Character (PC) actually dies?

I have played in games where the PCs do die – indeed, in one-shot roleplays high-stakes and player vs player conflict makes it inevitable, but when the game is longer there is a lot of player investment in a character and it’s not a good feeling to lose the character, for the character sheet to be metaphorically and sometimes literally torn up.

On the other hand, what if your character comes back from the dead?  What if they are given another life, or the Dungeon Master (DM) tweaks events in the player’s favour?  To me that cheapens the drama, like playing a computer game in cheat-mode.  The roleplay may not be the same for the players either after such an event if they
feel they are effectively immortal.

So how can a balance be struck between giving the player a fair chance of survival without potentially damaging the authenticity of the roleplay experience?

This is how it was managed when Laura Bailey’s character Vex’ahlia died in Critical Role episode 44.  The DM Matt Mercer combines the Revivify spells their cleric used with a group-assisted roll.

It seems fair that in order to avoid death to a PC there has to be a price to pay, either in gold or through effort in  order to bring the player back to the land of the living. Such a gift has to be earned for the rules to be bent in the player’s favour.  If death cannot be negotiated with, then they players could always try to direct approach and go to the realm of the dead (the underworld sometimes also known as Hades or Hel).  A mission could be attempted to bring the person back such as with Orpheus and Eurydice.

Finally, in considering roleplay authenticity and loss, there is a blog entry by Will Wheaton where he describes the events of Aeofel’s death as part of the Acquisitions Incorporated roleplay series.  On this event, Will says “I’m happy that I stayed true to Aeofel’s beliefs and played him the way I wrote him.”

DM Note #3


This refers to the third episode of Agora Core:

I spoke briefly in #1 about characters having backstory and how in Agora Core, the players were allowed to create their own.  In part 2, the characters experienced visionary dreams which they could partly manipulate if their minds were alert enough.  This was the first time that I tried to interact with their backstory.  Based on the information they provided, I could work some information in that either shed light on a past experience or about events that will happen soon.  A good example of visions in roleplay is in Titans Grave, and also Critical Role.

It is hard to say how much the players digested of this information because they were in the middle of a mission at the time.  The cause of the visions themselves is a longer plot arc that is playing out in the background for now but it provides a way to give the players insight.

  • Will Orix go after Vian, the boy who he had helped to expel from magic college?
  • Will Ikki be visited by his kind and have to face the Trial of Talons?
  • Will Hector face an assassination attempt for having stolen a precious medallion?
  • Will Long ever find his leader and prevent a disaster from befalling his clan?
  • Will Nomo be tempted to visit the site where he was attacked and burned by an orc and where he witnessed a monk burying an artefact?
  • Will Pevel overcome the demons of his childhood and be able to face conflict head on?

This is what the visions were for; to ask questions of the player characters and see if they pay heed to the warning of thing to come or want to pursue an answer for themselves.