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…

Aquatic NPCs

In a week when the Best Picture at the Oscars featured a fishy lead in The Shape of Water, here is a way to introduce a fishy feel to your D&D campaign. Set these NPCs loose on the story, for free:

Merfolk Warlock (Level 4) and a Merrow Fighter (Level 4)

These characters are part of a Sub-Aquatic Six Pack I have created. All six characters have been given character class levels and a rich backstory to bring them to life. If you’re interested in taking a look at the full version, it is available on the Dungeon Master’s Guild, for under $5.

If you are interested and do get a copy, please let me know what you think.

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).

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!