Sunday, September 27, 2020

Weaving the Fabric of the Game World - Random Encounters in D&D


One of the game mechanics that I often see creating confusion is random encounters. For the most part, people see random encounters as an opportunity for combat. Of course, they can be, and depending on your group, they may often be, but to treat them as guaranteed combat is IMHO a mistake.

Random encounters are an opportunity for you to reveal some of the threads of your game world without having to plan for it. It is tempting when running D&D games to either lore dump or just not bother. Random encounters offer you the chance to improvise some aspects of the game world without extensive planning. A good example of this happened in my Friday after school session.  

The after school group were approached by a warlock, Gorgal the Green, who was gathering sap from a King Bloom, a magical plant whose nectar can be used to create potions of sweet water. The warlock had been sending apprentices to the bloom to collect the nectar for several years now. Sentient plants IMC never sleep or dream, but warlocks can cast sleep spells on them so they can. In exchange for the opportunity to dream, the plant allows them to collect the nectar needed for potion making. The last two apprentices Gorgal sent to the plant did not return, so the warlock has hired the party to investigate.

The party headed out in the morning into the marshes for a two day journey. They passed by the shantytowns and the fishermen, and followed the river into the marshes. The first day and night produced no encounters. 

I roll in the open for random encounters, so it creates some buzz at the table. They know that the encounters can be a boon or a bane, and they tend to get quite excited when I roll. 

On the morning of day two of travel I rolled an encounter. I went to my random encounter tables and rolled a group of 20 bullywugs and 10 giant lizards. Bullywugs in my campaign are not evil, I have no evil humanoid races in my game. 

Now, as a side point, I don’t write much in my random encounter tables as I like to improvise. So all I have is the stats for the bullywugs and the giant lizards. I have no other information.

I decide on the spot that the group is a caravan heading to the city to sell their wares, gahal fruit, reed wine, marsh salt, dried fish and bone knives (balanced perfectly for throwing). 

I rolled for surprise and none was indicated on either side, so the party saw the caravan in the distance as they travelled down the road that paralleled the river. The road was a common route for those moving back and forth through the marshes, as they are impenetrable in places, and it made sense that they would meet a caravan on the road.

When they saw the group in the distance the party ranger and thief immediately took off to the side and climbed a tree to get a better view. The party fighter, who has a chameleon necklace, blended in and moved forward until he flanked the caravan, waiting in the reeds

The party priest approached the caravan, and opened parley with them. As opposed to my Thursday group that went looking for a fight, my Friday group were more circumspect. They weren’t naive, they took precautions, but they didn’t just attack either.

Another one of the things I do with NPCs/Monsters in my game is to have them behave… differently. Vance inspired me to this to be honest, one of the most amazing things about Jack Vance’s stories is that the people in his books are genuinely strange, they don’t behave like people today behave, or even like people in the past, his Dying Earth stories are set in the very far future, and the social conventions and behavior of people is very different.

So bullywugs, for example, are not just humans with frog bodies. I run them as very languid and laid back. They don’t care about many things, they are not easily angered or offended, and they basically just want to do the things necessary to live a good life, eat, drink, and create. So rather than have them immediately arm up and get ready to fight, when they saw the party they neither sped up or slowed down, they just kept moving on the road, no big deal. When the party priest approached them the bullywug in the lead had the caravan stop, and he moved forward to about 20 feet away and held up his hands in the traditional greeting in my setting. 

The priest returned the greeting and asked who they were and where they were going. He responded by saying that they were walking along the river enjoying the sun, and that they were hoping to stop for lunch soon.

That kind of threw the player off. The players started talking to each other OOC:

“Are they messing with us?”

“Was that an insult”

“Maybe he’s keeping us busy to distract us so one of them can attack”

That continued for a few minutes, until they decided to continue the conversation.

“But what is your destination?”

bullywug responded, “Death”

They didn’t know what to make of that.

“You want to die?”

The bullywug croaked several times in succession something the party rightly thought was laughter, “It’s not something you want or don’t want, it just is. But it’s the final destination, yes?”

I could see that a few of the players were glomming on to the fact that these bullywugs were a bit elliptical or even philosophical. Then the priest got clever.

“Where are you headed today… after lunch?”

“We are headed to the city”, he swept his hand back towards the giant lizards, laden with many bags, “gahal fruit, reed wine, marsh salt and bone knives, do you want a bone knife, they throw like the maaka bird files”

Now the priest was getting into it. 

“No, we don’t need knives, but thanks”

At this point I had to decide what the bullywugs would do. They could continue to talk, they could pass the party, I wasn’t entirely sure where to go with this. I rolled quickly to see if they noticed when the two party members climbed up a tree, and they did, so they might be suspicious of an ambush. So I rolled again to see how they would react to the conversation, using an encounter reaction roll with a small positive modifier as they were disposed to being laid back and easygoing.

It came up strong positive. 

So I ran with it.

“Join us for lunch, maybe I can interest you in some bone knives.”

The party talked about this and decided to take them up on it.

Moments like this, when there is nothing immediate to gain from an encounter, when there is no promise of a fight or of loot, where the players just engage because they are having fun interacting with a part of the game world, are a marker of immersion and (IMO) a successful game. For the party at this moment there was nothing obvious to gain from sitting down for lunch with a caravan of frog men. Indeed, if they were indeed nefarious then it could lead to a bad end. But they were interested enough to join them.

So I described the bullywugs taking out dried fish and reed wine, building a fire and cooking the fish, that sort of thing. Then I had some fun.

There is a paladin in the party who has a war horse. Horses are extremely rare in my setting as it is in a swamp, where horses are limited in where they can go, so the far more common mounts are domesticated giant spiders, giant lizards and anhkhegs. So the bullywugs would likely be unfamiliar with horses. So several of them surrounded the paladin on his horse, pointing to it.

“What’s that”?

The PC responded, “what’s what”?

“That thing you sit on”

“It’s a horse”

“It’s covered with hair, and it's dry!”

“May we touch it”?

The player running the paladin wasn’t sure about that, but his fellow players convinced him to say yes, which he did.

The bullywugs touched the horse, and croaked loudly a few times. 

“It’s so soft”

“It’s so warm”

“What’s that for”, pointing to the horse’s tail.

“That’s the tail”, the paladin responded.

One of the bullywugs slapped his companion, “It’s to keep the flies away”!

Everyone laughed at that.

The fish were fried up and passed around amongst the PCs and the other bullywugs, along with the reed wine and the gahal fruit. 

The bullywug caravan leader had a conversation with the party fighter.

“Your sword, that’s pretty big eh?”

I then made the sound of a tongue flying out and grabbing a fly, drawing it back into the bullywug’s mouth. I did this off and on throughout the conversation, it was a little detail that the players found hilarious.

“Yeah, it’s big, but it works pretty well”

The bullywug pointed to the spear on his back, “Mine’s bigger”

More laughter.

The party thief jumped in, “Do you trade or sell your stuff”

I had all the frogs croak/laugh loudly at the question. I didn’t explain why, but I don’t have to, the point is to make the bullywugs alien enough in their reactions and statements that they seem different, I don’t have to explain it all. 

“We trade”

The party priest, who is the newest player in our game, asked who their god was. It was the kind of question that could be insulting or endearing. I decided that they were indifferent to it.

“The swamp, the reeds, the water, the fish”, the bullywug replied, then he snapped another fly from the air, “we eat our gods, do you eat yours?”

That made everyone laugh. I wasn’t sure if the player of the priest was going to role play offense at the comment. But he decided he found the response funny too, so he just laughed along.

The conversation lasted for a while, the party asked about the swamp, whether or not they saw hunters from the city often, whether or not caravans passed this way often, that sort of thing.

The bullywugs asked where the party was going. They had a conversation amongst themselves OOC about whether or not to be honest and say what they were doing. For all they knew the bullywugs might have been the reason the apprentices hadn’t made it back the last time. They ultimately decided that they should be honest, and be wary if the response was off.

So they explained what they were doing. 

The bullywug caravan leader responded.

“The King-bloom is good to us, but it’s not fond of strangers, sing to it and it should be calm”

The players already knew this (the warlock who sent them had told them), but it reinforced in their minds that they were basically harmless, as they confirmed something the party already knew.

When lunch was over and the bullywugs were getting packed up to go again, I rolled an encounter reaction roll to see how they were going to react to the whole encounter. I gave a positive modifier due to the laid-back nature of the bullywugs and the fact that they had engaged in friendly conversation for a while.

It came up as enthusiastically positive.

So when they were preparing to leave, the caravan-leader waved up a bullywug from the back of the group. The bullywug had tattooed symbols on his chest and carried no weapons. The two of them spoke in bullywug for a moment, and the tattooed bullywug sat on the ground, took out a handful of bones with strange symbols etched on them, and spoke in a low, guttural growl for two minutes, then cast the bones on the ground. 

The bullywug spent a few minutes reading the bones, then he turned to the group and spoke in common. 

“When you get to the bend in the river where the King-bloom is found, beware the river, there is danger there.”

The bullywug had cast an augury spell, and asked if crossing the river to get to the King bloom would bring “weal or woe”, it came up “woe”. So I decided on the spot that there was a giant snake in the river that would attack them if they swam across to get to the bloom.

The players then had a conversation, they wanted to do something for the bullywugs, as they had fed the party and given them some helpful advice. The party priest, who was new to the game and currently riding on the back of another PCs giant lizard, spoke up.

“I need a lizard to ride, can I buy, no, trade you for one of yours”?

The bullywugs croaked in laughter.

“We need these, lots of things to carry, but past the bend in the river where the king bloom lies the river branches south, take that branch for a walking day and you will come to our home, we have lizards there, we can trade then.”

And that was that.

The party continued on their way, and the caravan headed to the city.

The party gained no loot, slayed no monsters. They gained a bit of information about the river, but they were already aware that the swamp was filled with dangerous monsters. Mostly they had fun, got to interact with the game world a bit, learned a few things about inhabitants of the game world, and made a potential alliance for later.

If they had gone in swords flashing to get some “easy XP and potential loot” none of that would have happened. If I had played the bullywugs as inherently mistrusting and had them attack at any provocation it wouldn’t have happened either. But random encounters don’t have to be like that. 

I should also point out that I improvised everything about this encounter other than the fact it had 20 bullywugs with 10 giant lizards, from the fact they were a trade caravan, to their general disposition, to the conversation, to the decision to have lunch, to the casting of augury. None of this was planned, or part of maintaining “story beats”, or letting the players “shine”. I didn’t pick the paladin and his warhorse for attention as the paladin’s player hadn’t done much lately and needed attention. I didn’t pick the goods the bullywugs were trading as the party needed one of the items for something. It was all 100% off the cuff to create game flava. To give the game world some depth, but not “purposeful” depth, just depth to create immersion. 

I find that periodic encounters like this, that don’t have a larger purpose, or “serve the narrative” in any particular way, are a big contributor to player buy-in to the game world. They are also a lot of fun for me. 

And as you might have guessed, the players were making bullywug tongue grabbing fly noises for the rest of the session after they left the caravan. 

Good times.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

 Rolling, Rolling, Rolling - Dice, in Game Actions and D&D

I had a session Friday that exemplified the kind of D&D we find exciting at our table, and it is a good example of why I play 1e, it is a perfect fit for this kind of game. I wanted to review the session here to show how the game handles this sort of adventure, then ask some questions at the end.

The party has signed on to help at a settlement (Fort Maegar) on a new continent, and earned the favor of the fishermen at the Fort as they saved them from a vodiyani. So one of the fishermen passed on a rumor that there was a sunken ship just up the coast. The merchant ship, the Ebon Caul, formerly captained by the Rakshasa warlock Euleak the Gold, had went down about a day’s journey north along the coast by boat. Right around there the treeline recedes and turns to hills, off the beach a few miles lies a small rocky island

The Ebon Caul is rumored to have gone down to the west of the island. So the party decided it would be worth a look up the coast to see if they could find it. The settlement is in need of wealth, and there is always the possibility of magic items  

That’s where the players jumped in, a rumor and a location from a fisherman. The party consists of an aarakocra, a rakasta, two lizard men, a yuan-ti and a kobold. All but the rakasta and the aarakocra are amphibious. So the first item of business was what to do about that

In my campaign warlocks can brew potions, there are odds for it based on their intelligence, and the party warlock’s patron, Maegar the Mighty, has a lab and a library. The procedure requires them to find a “sympathetic ingredient” as the base. So for speed potion the paw of a cheetah kind of thing. If you get a “normal” component you have certain odds, if you get fantastic components (e.g. a quickling’s foot) you get better odds. As it happens they decapitated a vodiyani and kept its head,that was a sufficient component for a water breathing potion. They rolled and were successful. As they took 4 weeks to do the brewing, I rolled two other things. A 1 in 20 chance each week that the Fort would be attacked by something while they were at work. None of those came up. I also rolled a 1 in 20 chance that someone else would find the wreck in the 4 weeks. It didn’t come up either.

They had enough for 6 potions, 12 hours of underwater breathing if needed. That was covered. 

So then they asked me if the Fort had a ship. I told them they had a small galley they used for defense and supplies, anchored at the coast on the river mouth, they had a guard house there and it was kept ready to go. They also had fishing boats. Then they asked which was faster, the galley’s were, for the most part. But one of them pointed out the boats were less conspicuous, and that spawned more conversation. Eventually they settled on the galley. 

When I run a AD&D game they have to account for whatever they would need to sail a ship. None of them had sailing skills, so they had to recruit. 

“Where is your crew coming from?” They decided to ask the Fort Commander, Uraku, about this, and he was reluctant to send soldiers. So they decided to ask some of the fishermen. I decided that the local fishermen would have likely worked as sailors before, itinerant with different jobs. So they had the skills and there were enough amongst the population to be able to crew a small galley. I rolled to see if they responded positively to the request from the party, with modifiers for their past service and such. The party decided to sweeten the pot with an offer of a (small) cut of the loot for the fishermen who came along. The result was positive. So they had a crew of 8 fishermen to accompany the party. They were equipped with swords, crossbows and shields, and they decided to leave early in the morning. 

I divide my days into 4 parts, morning, afternoon, evening and night. I roll for encounters once per part, so any travel has potential risks and rewards

And time matters. Since the ship’s speed was tied to the weather, I rolled a d6 to determine if the wind was in their favor: 1-2: very much 3-4: moderately, 5-6: not at all

They rolled for each part of the day, to reflect the fact that the wind can change during the day, and they got 5, 5, 4, 6. So the wind was in their favor for only one part of the day (the evening). At that point I had to decide when they would arrive at the island. I had assumed a moderate result all day would get them there by the beginning of evening, with their results I decided they would get there late at night. 

That meant 4 random encounter rolls before you get to the place where the ship is. The wind determined the time, which determines the number of random checks. But the odds for those checks changes depending on the time of day you cover in your travel. For example, in the wilderness encounters are more likely at night, as the game world is plentiful with dangerous nocturnal predators in this setting. So if you start the journey at a particular time of day, for some journeys that might make your odds better.

So they travelled, and despite making four checks, there were no encounters. Keep in mind, though many of the encounters are with dangerous creatures, not all are hostile, and not all are dangerous. Still, no hits meant no delays, people often think that having random encounter rolls will gum up the works and you will never get anything done. However, if you use the dice, they don’t come up all the time.

I make a note to remind myself to roll a random encounter check, about 2 hours into the encounter, to represent the “night” check. So I ask them, “you have arrived at the island, it was easy to find with the fishermen crewing the ship, what do you do now?”

“We look for the Ebon Caul”. 

“OK, how do you do that?”

“We look into the water?”

It’s night time, so I take out two d6, 

1-2: full moon, 3-4 half moon, 5-6 crescent moon

1-2: clear, 3-4 cloudy, 5-6 really cloudy

I roll a 2 and a 6.

“You look into the water and see about a few feet down, it’s black beneath that, the moon is behind deep clouds and the sky is black, so you see virtually nothing.”

 Discussion ensued. 

“We have a polymorph potion, we could use that to go explore.”

That was ruled out as they were worried about larger predators coming after them, and no one wanted to be in a form that wouldn’t allow use of weapons or spell casting. They considered using magic. A comb of the collective spells available to them held some promise. One of them had “locate object”, and it works on “known or familiar” targets. So that was a possibility, and it reached 300’, which would likely be enough.

However, they had a lot of space to cover, as they didn’t know where it went down, just West of the Island. How to determine that? The party priest went to her spells and saw Augury, she can cast it three times per day. So she says, she can look at the area west of the island and divide it up into three sections, say the bottom, middle and top. Then she can cast an augury and ask, “if I look in the bottom section first, will it bring weal or woe?” If the augury says “weal”, then search there first, reducing the search area by ⅔. If it says “woe”, then cast it again and ask the question about the middle area. If it say’s “woe”, you know the top area is where to start. 

Now they were cooking with gas.

They decided to cast it for the first time and it came up “yes” to investigating the lower section, and I rolled it as a successful augury, so the boat was there. This is a great example of how the PCs choices create the game world. I hadn’t specified an exact location for the wreck, their use of a spell made that choice.

“So we go to that section and look”

“You can’t see beyond a few feet down”

Then one of the players asked if anyone had a light spell. The party priest said yes, then they asked how long it lasts… one hour and 40 min. So the player (with the Kobold PC) decides that the priest should cast light on his sword, and he will swim down and look, the party can follow in the ship. 

And that was the plan. The kobold would swim in a spiral pattern around the area where they were looking, and the ship would follow from above. At this point I needed to decide how long it would take for the kobold to find the ship. I set the max time as 2 hours, divided it into 8, and rolled a d8. I got a 2, for ½ hour of searching. I then rolled for potential random encounters for the kobold while swimming, none came up.

I next needed to determine how deep it was around the island. I rolled a d100 for 1-1000 feet, and it came up 2, so it was around 200’ deep in this area. 

“How deep are you going?”

“Right to the bottom”

Now, I had to determine if they could see him from the ship. 200’ down, ink black water and no moonlight, but a light spell is being used. The light spell has a 40’ radius, but just like you can see lights from far off but not see what is carrying them, I figured they should be able to see a dim light from below when he was swimming. So they could trail him as he swam. He strapped his sword to his back and dove in.

So I described fish swimming by, rocky features on the bottom, scuttering crabs, that sort of thing, then I described him swimming past a big rock and seeing this:

“You see the wreckage of a galley, it has a gaping hole in its side, and appears to have settled amongst an outcropping of rocks. The masts are broken off, and it has been partially overgrown with weeds and moss. Just beyond the ship, to the North of it, there is a figure, 25 feet tall, which looks like a humanoid, arms, legs and head on the body, it very much looks like an ‘absence’ in the water, filled with swirling, violent mists. You can’t tell if it is looking your way or not.”

That thing is an air elemental. It is bound to the area by a curse. 

The elemental was formerly imprisoned in a ring worn by Euleak the Gold. The warlock called on the creature to fight but was subsequently killed while the elemental was free. It will attack any living thing that comes near it as it is enraged that it cannot leave the area. The owner was cursed that “when he died his servant would not leave his side”. That binds the elemental to the area of his body. If the party explores the shipwreck and finds his bones, they can end the curse by casting a dispel curse / magic against a 12th level caster, or by completely destroying his bones (2 in 6 chance of success, if it fails the elemental is permanently bound to this spot). Destroying the ring won’t help. The ring can still command the elemental though.

If the party finds the ring they can command the elemental with the ring, and they can remove the ring from the presence of the sorcerer’s bones. But without the dispel curse/magic the elemental can’t leave. If they take his bones away the elemental will move with them. 

So the PC is now deciding what to do. I roll to see if the elemental is looking his way or not. I decided on a 50/50, it was not looking his way.

The PC sheathed his sword to kill the light, plunging himself into darkness other than a faint glow coming from the giant underwater creature. He then swam towards the ship. At this point up above the party loses sight of his glow, and the glow from the elemental is too faint to register above, so they just see things go dark, and decide to drop anchor.

I roll to see if the elemental notices that, and it doesn’t.

The kobold swam to the ship, and dove into the main cargo hold. Once he was inside the ship he took out his sword again.

I describe bodies, some picked clean of meat, others half eaten. I describe a single chest on the floor (this was from another room, I decided it was thrown free when the ship went down and ended up here). The kobold noted the chest and swam to the aft section to investigate the rooms.

He goes through several rooms that appear to belong to the crew, there are some bodies here, suggesting the ship sank suddenly when not all crew were on deck. He swims into a room that appears to be the captain’s room, and he searches the room looking for wealth, items, maps, etc. 

When someone searches for this sort of thing in my game, I have them tell me where they want to look, as they cover different areas I make them roll for finding concealed items. They see their roll results. But only the result that happens when they are in the right place matters. The rest don’t. 

Now, I’m also tracking the time, as the light spell on his sword lasts an hour and 40 min. He dove in and searched for ½ hr to find the ship, it took him 5 min to get through the hold, he passed right through the crew quarters, so he has an hour left. He searched the captain’s room, his chest was under a floorboard. He described where he looked and we rolled checks, sometimes he was successful but found nothing, other times he was unsuccessful and repeated to get a successful check. After about 5 more min of game time doing this he said he was checking the floor. I had him roll to find concealed items, 2 in 6 chance, he failed. So that was another 5 min. He repeated again and failed. Another 5 min. Now he has 50 min left.

Now, I decide that since the ship has holes in it and has broken apart in places, the light from his sword could catch the notice of the elemental. I roll a 1 in 20 chance, it would be small, but you never know. It doesn’t come up.

So he swims to the front of the ship and investigates several more rooms. He finds a large, lavish room with a skeleton in it, as well as three chests, a net and a sword on the wall. He notes the chests and the sword, and takes the ring off the skeleton.

This is the ring of elemental command, and as soon as he takes it off the body the air elemental is aware of it being moved. It roars and turns and moves towards the boat. The PC feels the shift in the water and hears the muffled roar, and decides to book it out of the room

He heads back to the captain’s quarters and hides. The air elemental starts to tear apart the ship, tossing pieces of it in a rage, until it stops, focuses and then turns to where the kobold is hiding out. It shoots through the water and its head emerges into the Captain’s quarters

And then it screams, in rakasta, “WHERE IS THE RING”!  As the air elemental was commanded by a rakasta for years, it speaks the language rather than common. As it happens, the kobold speaks rakasta, so he understands the elemental. Now he’s worried. But then he decides that if it wants the ring, the ring can probably control it, so he steps out of hiding and tells the elemental that it wants to make a deal. At that point the parlay rules kick in, as the elemental can understand the kobold and vice versa. The elemental pauses and thinks

I roll an encounter reaction roll for the elemental, it is positive, so it is willing to make a deal. It turns to the PC and says, “give me the ring, you can have all the other treasure here, and I will leave you alone.” At that point the PC decides that he will take his chances, and he orders the elemental to back off. The ring does the job, and the elemental howls in seething rage, then backs off. The player now decides to swim back to the surface, and tells the elemental to bring the treasure up to the ship for him. He swims back to the ship and climbs aboard

He tells the party what had happened, and the elemental comes out of the water with the first chest. He is then ordered to retrieve the rest. He dives back down and heads to grab the next chest, then brings it back. At this point the kobold decides the longer the elemental stays around the more of a chance of something bad happening, he may have been remembering how Conjure Elemental works, so he sends the elemental away.

They go down themselves to retrieve the rest of the chests, bringing up one at a time using a net and four of the amphibious PCs. I roll for a random encounter at this point, and it comes up, so now 20 sahuagin show up. 

I roll for surprise and the party gets surprise on the sahuagin, so I interpret this as the party spotting the sahuagin as they are approaching. They haul it back to the ship but are spotted by the creatures. The party climbs up the side of boat as the sahuagin emerge from the water, since these sahuagin are attacking passing ships I decided they know some common. They shout at the party, “our god has left us, where is our god!”, I decided on the spot that the sahuagin had come to worship the air elemental, given its fantastic appearance. 

At that point the kobold PC shouts back, holding out the ring, “I command your god to my service, did you see it removing treasures from the ship, I made it do so!”

So that generated an encounter reaction roll, which came up neutral, so I decided that they would leave and discuss what had happened.

The party decided to leave. So they dropped sails and headed home, the wind was in their favor this time and they checked out their loot. I decided that the sahuagin were going to trail the ship and attack when they were unaware.

They found thousands of GP in gems, jewelry and gold, which made them happy. They gave the sailors each a share of 100gp, nothing to the adventurers but a ton for each of the sailors. They found a customized net the captain had made for him, one of the party slayers (ranger/assassins) took that as he already had proficiency with a net. 

They also found a sword, a Chinook Blade, 

Chinook Blade

A Chinook blade is a gladius, it has a +1 magical bonus, +2 against water dwelling creatures. 

In the hands of a thief the sword can manifest a dry, warm wind that blows through an area of 2” square with the wielder at its base, centre or edge, once per day. The wind lasts for as long as the wielder concentrates, or 1-3 rounds without concentration, if damaged while concentrating the effect lasts for 1-3 more rounds. For every round a being is exposed to the wind it leeches off 1 hp (no save), which is stored in the blade. Up to the thief’s level in victims can be so drained per round. When the blade absorbs 50 hp the wielder may transform into an invisible stalker for 1 hour any time thereafter. Until they do so the sword may drain no more HP. When the wielder transforms they will have 3-18 hp regenerated. The blade then resets itself and new HP must be drained. 

This weapon only works for thieves, so it went to the party aarakocra thief, who was very pleased to get it. 

The sahuagin had been following at a distance, and eventually attacked the ship, just before dawn. The climbed up the sides of the ship, and fortunately the party member on watch (the yuan-ti slayer) saw them and shouted out a warning.

This roused the crew, who made it topside just as the sahuagin came over the sides. Mayhem then ensued, with the crew shooting crossbows then rushing to melee with swords against the sahuagin’s spears. The yuan-ti impaled one as it crested the side of the ship with his trident, he rolled the exact amount of damage as the sahuagin had HP, which allowed me to describe a spectacular death. 

The party warlock cast a stinking cloud, in the system I am using there are failure and harm odds with any casting, but in this case he was successful. That took out a good chunk of the sahuagin, and a well placed net thrown by the party yuan-ti took out 4 more. The tide of the battle turned quickly after this and the party finished them off. 

What they don’t realize yet is that the elemental is still bound to the location of the sunken ship, as it is bound to the bones of the dead warlock Euleak the Gold, which are still there. So they THINK they have an elemental they can command at their whim no matter where they are, but in reality they have a ring that can be used to command elementals, but that particular elemental is bound to that location.

Not only that, but they don’t know the ring has other powers, so there’s that. What I’m expecting is that they will THINK they have the elemental at their beck and call and perhaps get in over their heads, but we shall see. 

They sailed back to the fort without further encounters, and we stopped for the night.


This was a great session, the players LOVED it. A lot of this session was made up of rolls that were set based on the decisions the PCs made. Gygax created detailed rules for certain activities (like combat) but left other areas undeveloped, recommending to the DM to make up odds as she sees fit, rather than specifying many different situations ahead of time. 

So the game does not have formal systems for many things, but it does have a recommended system for anything the game rules don’t cover: assign odds based on your assessment of the situation, and roll. I know some people dislike this aspect of the game, but to be honest I love it. I have delved into more complex mechanics for exploration and such, but I find that most if not all of them are wanting in one way or another. At the end of the day I prefer to free form this sort of thing as there are simply too many things to note. Does the elemental see the lit sword from within the wrecked ship? How deep is the water a half mile off the coast? Does a locate object spell work on something you “know” but aren’t personally acquainted with? Is the night sky bright enough to show you what is deep under the water? 

These sorts of questions are of course amenable to a complex set of specific rules, but I resist this for a few reasons.

1. So many things come up that I can’t see a specific set of rules ever being enough. The elemental seeing the party member in the ship is a perfect example. I suppose you could come up with a mechanic for this sort of thing, and I guess you could fold it into a surprise roll or something like that, but it seems like there will always be more situations that don’t fit an existing mechanic or rule than those that do.

2. One of the things they love is that as they plan and come up with ideas it determines when they have to roll dice for success. So the more they choose their actions and plan out what they are doing, the longer they can put off having to roll at all, or they can maneuver into a situation where the odds are better. Take searching the captain’s quarters. The player’s choices as to where to search in what order determined how likely he was to find the secret chamber. D&D is a game of situational modifiers, and they learn to try and align them in their favor. 

3. Another reason I like assigning odds to actions like this is that it is part of a negotiation. I describe the situation and assign odds, then my players will make the case for changing them if they think of another interesting aspect of the situation that would impact the odds. So when the kobold was investigating the ship and I decided to roll to see if the elemental noticed him or not, the player pointed out that his PC was quite small, and that might impact being seen when the light was noticed. This back and forth is part of the dynamic of the game. It encourages players to bring in real world knowledge to the decision making process to help them out. They also enjoy the process of trying to convince me (and often the other players) of their perspective. If there is a formal mechanic for different situations this tends to shut down the negotiation process a lot of the time, either the rule applies or it doesn’t. This method is more interactive and frankly more fun.

4. And at the end of the day they find it exciting when I roll the dice to see if their gambit works out or not. Every time I assign odds for a PC course of action the dice roll is exciting for them as it can make things immeasurably harder or much easier. Even rolls for weather or a full moon become important and exciting, and thus command the player’s attention. 

So this method, without an extensive set of specific rules, instead using the DM and players to negotiate a set of odds and assign them on the spot to their actions, gives them agency, relies on skill and knowledge (so rewards good play), and creates excitement as it has immediate in game consequences when the roll is made.


I have a question. 

Some of you reading this play other systems instead of D&D that handle actions differently. D&D explicitly tells you (well, AD&D explicitly tells you) that if you have a situation that is not outlined in the rules, you should assign odds and go from there. Some people find this lack of specificity to be a flaw, I think it is a strength for the reasons I mentioned above.

My question is this, can you recommend a system that could handle an adventure like this, because any system I am going to play would have to handle this sort of adventure. It would have to handle other sorts of adventure as well, but if it couldn’t handle this I wouldn’t want to play it. This session had resource planning, exploration, negotiation and combat, any system I want to use has to handle these things. 

If you do know a system that could handle this sort of adventure, can you explain how it would handle the situations that came up here, e.g. how would it have handled searching for the Ebon Caul, how would it have handled the time limitations on the light spell, how would it have handled the elemental noticing the PC in the ship, etc. Because I'm not above pinching an elegant system for things that happen regularly in my game if there is one out there.

I will post a thread on Twitter with a link to this post, if possible respond on Twitter with your answers if you are so disposed.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Running D&D Games - the Role of the Ref

I was recently asked what I think the role of the referee is in a D&D game. I can't speak for anyone else, but I have a fairly clear idea of what my role is at the table, so I'm going to share it here. One important caveat here, I don’t make any claims to representativeness, I am NOT suggesting that how I run my game is the “right” way, or that it is even the way it was intended to be played. I run it this way because it is what works for me at my table. 

The Role of the Ref

To start, here is what I DON’T do:

I don’t see myself as a storyteller. 

I don’t ask for backstories and tailor the game to them.

I don’t have a fixed narrative in mind for how the game will develop. 

I don’t choose the adventure for the PCs.

I don’t force the PCs to stay on the path of the adventure they are on.

I don’t feel the need to have “story beats” to be hit every session. 

I don’t ensure that each PC will have a “chance to shine” in the game. 

I don’t fudge dice, I roll them in the open and the results stand. 

I don’t ensure that every session has social role play or combat. 

I don’t scale encounters to the PC’s abilities or level.

I don’t place magic items for specific PCs.

So you might ask, what exactly is it that I do?

A. Create a game world.

B. Decide on the game world’s reactions to the PCs actions

C. Adjudicate when the rules are ambiguous or non-existent

A. Creating a Game World

I created my own setting for the game we play. It  is a large city. It is primarily run off of tables, so I can roll for things in the moment rather than creating everything ahead of time. To create the setting I read many existing settings, both for D&D and other games, and nicked the bits I liked, then made my own Frankensetting. 

This involves a lot of improvisation. So, for example, I have tables to determine if a building is an Inn or a blacksmith’s, but I don’t have any pre-prepared information on the layout of the inn or the proprietor of the smithy. I have tables to generate NPCs if I need them, but most often I create them ex nihilo on the spot and record the details for later reference. 

When you run a game this way the player’s choices for their PCs essentially create the game world as you play. The Inns, smithies and such that are detailed in the setting are the ones that the PCs have visited. Call it Schrodinger’s Setting, nothing exists in detail until the PCs interact with it. 

I have created flavor details for the setting, holidays and customs, random encounter tables, all of that is pre-created. But the VAST majority of it will not be directly interacted with. 

In addition, I have detailed factions. Factions are groups with goals and interests, usually independent of the PCs. When they arrive in the city they usually become involved with a faction intentionally or by chance.

All of it is schematic. So for example, the city in my setting is run by Noble Houses, the Houses represent a faction in the setting, I have detailed the name, Ward, crest, and function for each House, as well as its leaders (a warrior and a warlock), but I haven’t detailed the hundreds of other people who would be part of the House. It is like this with all factions in the setting, there is some high-level information to give inspiration and flavor, the rest I improvise when needed.

This style of refereeing is not for everyone, you have to be comfortable improvising and avoid too much repetition. I run my games this way as I’m good at improvising, play to your strengths and all that, and I have tables that allow me to generate content when needed. The tables were built to be inspirational. The key advantage to this approach is that it gives me maximum scope with minimum input. Rather than detailing every aspect of the game world, I use tables and inspiration and I invent it as I go. 

It also gives my players complete freedom to go wherever they want. I run a 100% sandbox game, the world is completely open to them, they just have to decide what to do. I know some people dislike this approach, as they feel their players would be paralyzed with options. But it works remarkably well. 

B. The Game World Reacts

Sandboxing is avoided by some as they fear their players won’t know what to do. In my experience this is not what happens. It is just that players are so used to the traditional approach (you meet in a tavern and a mysterious stranger asks you to go on a quest) that they don’t know what to do when the ref doesn’t leave obvious hooks.

But you really don’t need that, as the PCs interact with the world consequences of their actions build up, they make enemies who will oppose them and allies who will ask for their assistance (and offer assistance when needed). You don’t need to lay down hooks when the PCs pass through the game world as eventually it will react to what they are doing. 

Sometimes it happens because the PCs make a decision, e.g. they decide to go purchase mounts and in meeting the animal handler an adventure seed is dropped. Other than that, there are three primary mechanisms that prime this process. One is random encounter rolls, another is encounter reaction rolls, a third is factions. 

There is a misconception that random encounter rolls are all about fighting. Sometimes they are (e.g. if you run into a tiger, the tiger will very likely want to eat you), but they don’t have to be. Random encounter tables are populated by animals, monsters and NPCs, some of which will be potentially violent, others will be less so. As the PCs pass through the city I roll for random encounters regularly, and eventually one will come up.

However, I also use encounter reaction rolls. In AD&D when you meet an NPC or monster that can communicate, and you speak to it, eventually the ref will make an encounter reaction roll, this roll determines how the NPC/monster will react to the PCs parlay attempt.

This mechanism is the beating heart of sandbox improvisational play. It is one of the cornerstones of old school play as well. The way it works from the ref’s side is fairly simple. I have a set of expectations about how a NPC/Monster will react based on their alignment and the background of the setting. When parlay happens I will free form role play the encounter as the NPC/monster in question.

This stage is exploratory, essentially the NPC/monster is trying to determine if the PCs are going to oppose their interests or not. So for example, the PCs think that a jewelry shop is a front for a cult. So they decide to come back to it at night and check it out. On the way there, they run into a city guard patrol. Now, the guard patrol is going to be suspicious of anyone lurking around in the middle of the night, their goal is to find trouble and stop it from happening. 

In some games this would be the start of a fight, as the party would feel they could take the guards and that they might stop them from their goals. The guards call out the PCs, and they decide to respond rather than immediately fight.  

So they ask the guards a question about where to find a good inn to sleep at as they are tired, lost and don’t know the city. As they look like outsiders and they aren’t being overly hostile, I have the sergeant answer and tell them about the Big Shooter Inn a few blocks away. No need for a roll yet.

Then, one of the PCs announces that she will walk ahead to the inn while the rest of the PCs ask the guards more questions. She is planning on getting into position to backstab if things go badly. However, the fact that one of the PCs left could very well make the guards suspicious so I make an encounter reaction roll. 

It comes up positive, so I have to interpret it right on the spot. Why would these guards be OK with strangers asking questions at night while one of them slips off? I decide they is bored so they will be OK with continuing the conversation, and they aren’t that invested in their jobs anyway as they feel the late night patrol is a lowly task.

Notice that in explaining the encounter reaction roll, I have instantly created some backstory for the guards, and potential for future developments. Now as the conversation continues with the party I have some motivations in mind, and I can make the conversation more detailed and realistic. 

So what could have been an instant fight is now a chance to develop the game world and create potential allies or enemies for the PCs. This combination of random encounter rolls and encounter reaction rolls drives a significant amount of improvisational play at the table. 

It is an important tool for improvisation as it gives you instant inspiration, you have to interpret  the results of the die roll, and that drives you to create aspects of the game world on the spot. You could of course just improvise these without the rolls, but I find the kernel of a die roll is far more inspirational than just pulling something out of thin air.

And that brings us to factions. Other than PC motivated tasks (go to blacksmith) or random encounters, when the PCs arrive in the city their actions usually put them into contact with one or more factions, and most often they align themselves with a faction to gain power or just to survive. So for example, when a thief arrives in the city they often go out and find the Thieves Guild in order to join. Warlocks need patrons to advance so they will often join a Noble House to get one. Priests will look for a temple of their god or pantheon, etc. 

Once they interact with a faction they will often get asked to complete tasks (as an initiation) or become embroiled in shenanigans as a result. And it works very organically. So take the case of a group of thieves who started one campaign in the city. They approached the guild and took on a job as their “entry fee”. Anything they stole would belong to the guild, and it had to be high profile. They cased a place, stole a magic item, and took it back to the guild. That got them in. However, it also earned them the enmity of the NPC who they stole from. In a world of magic, it isn’t terribly difficult to find out who stole your stuff. 

So right out of the gate the party had an ally (the thief who initiated them, their success reflected well on her, and she was their contact with the guild, so she saw them as allies) and a few enemies (another thief who was aligned against the thief who initiated them, as well as the rich merchant they stole from). 

I find that within a few sessions the PCs have generated enough “reaction” from the game world in terms of allies and enemies to sustain long term play. In addition, being aligned with a faction usually carries commitments that they have to fulfill. Faction play is a massive generator of adventures. 

There are two important observations about this system. 

One, it is entirely player driven. Player choices about PC actions drive all of it, right down the line. I don’t direct the players or tell them how to react to anything, they have complete autonomy over their PCs actions, and complete authority over deciding what “hooks” to bite. When I say that I run a “collaborative” game, this is what I mean. The direction of the PCs adventures is entirely shaped by their choices. 

Two, this system works best when I decide (using the dice where appropriate) what the game world’s reaction is to the PCs actions. I know there are games where the PCs decide on the narrative and how it will play out, but that’s not the system I’m running. The appeal of doing it this way is that the game world feels independent of the PCs, they don’t decide how it will react to them, I do. This mirrors an aspect of the real world, in that you make your choices and the world reacts to those choices, often in ways you didn’t predict and cannot control. In short, running the game world like this creates immersion, it feels real. 

Additionally, as I rely on dice rolls rather than my own whims, the world seems impartial to a significant degree. My players know that the dice are a big part of how the game world reacts to them, so they don’t feel I’m making it easier for them, or that they can make it easier, and this gives them a sense of accomplishment. It could have went south, they know that every time they have an encounter, so when they manage to make it work it feels earned.  

The combination of setting, factions, random encounters, and encounter reactions can sustain an almost infinite amount of game play. None of it is predetermined, there is no fixed “story” to tell, and it can develop in ways that surprise everyone at the table, players and referee. That is one of the greatest strengths of this style of play.

C. Adjudicating the Rules

I’ve been running games off and on for about 35 years. In the last year I logged about 300 hours of table time running a house ruled 1e AD&D game. In almost EVERY session I can remember, at some point, I had to make a ruling on something that wasn’t in the rules. 

Take an example from a recent game. One of the party members had been possessed by a ghost. The party magic-user had cast an anti-magic shell on himself. The possessed party member attacked the magic-user. One of my players asked, “would the anti-magic shell push out the ghost?”

Good question. The spell description says the shell is impervious to “all magic and magic spell effects”, possession is clearly magic. However it also says that it “prevents the entrance of charmed, summoned, and conjured creatures.” Is a possessed PC a “charmed” creature? Would it just be shut out of the shell like a protection from evil hedges certain creatures?

Whether you think the answer is obvious or not, it is clearly the kind of thing that might require a ruling at the table, as it is not obvious from the text.

“If I drop on the guard from above, how much more damage will it do”?

“Does speak with animals work on alien animals in a space ship?”

“Can illusionists read magic, as they can read and use magic-user spells ‘which contain spells usable by illusionists’, but they don’t have the spell read magic.”

“If I use a one handed weapon with two hands, can I do any extra damage?”

“If my magic user holds up a shield, does it lower his AC, as magic-users cannot use armor and shield, does he take a penalty?”

“Can the vines around the waterfall be used to tie together logs to make a raft?”

“How far can I swim in leather armor”

“Does the monk’s ability to knock aside missiles allow her to knock aside the poison stinger of a giant hornet, or alternately, does the monk’s ability to take no damage on a save and half on a failed save halve the damage from a giant hornet’s sting, does it reduce the time of incapacity if the poison save is failed?

“Is a Brownie familiar, an “enchanted or summoned creature” hedged by a protection from evil?”

You get the idea.

Any TTRPG that doesn’t have a “universal mechanic” for everything will run into this problem. TTRPGs tend to be open ended in this sense, they have constraints, but compared to board games the possibilities are almost endless.

But that’s not the only problem. 

There are of course “stripped down” games that are “rules light”. They will still require adjudication, but less of it. D&D, however, is “rule heavy”, in the sense that there are rules for a LOT of things. Spells are a great example. Spells are essentially mini-rule sets for a specific application, and there are hundreds of them. And any time you have that many spells, the number of ways they can interact is almost limitless. Add rules for magic items, and right there you have a world of rulings ahead of you.

But it’s worse than that!

D&D isn’t really a fantasy game, it’s a pulp fantasy game, so it draws from EVERYTHING. D&D has ray guns, six shooters, alternate planes of existence, time travel, teleportation, psionics, interaction with deities and flumphs. 

I used to play Top Secret, a spy game. It also had many occasions when rulings were needed, but nowhere near as many as in my D&D games, because Top Secret didn’t have magic or superpowers or gods walking the earth. It had guns, cars and bombs. And for the most part the PCs were stuck on Earth and could only move from place to place by conventional means.

Because D&D has so many fantastic elements, D&D models an entire universe, not just a world. The scope of that is incredible. You may only do it bit by bit, but as you campaign you will build a universe around you. That means the game will always throw up situations that stretch the rules.

Now, one can argue, perhaps fairly, that a certain percentage of these cases will be cases where:

The ref has forgotten an existing rule that covers this situation

The ref is misinterpreting a rule and doesn’t see how it applies

That seems fair. But even if you account for that, say by dropping ½ of the cases in last year’s games that I mentioned above, that still means it occurred in approximately 75 sessions. That’s still pretty significant.

But I would maintain it happens in almost every game I run. 

Why does all of this matter? 

People criticize old school games for having a ref that has “ultimate authority”, this is seen as an open invitation for god-complex DM’s abusing players in the game. Gygax didn’t do anything to help with this, he very much advocated for an adversarial style of play where the DM was “out to get” the players, and where DMs came to expect players to try and “game the system”. 

And I’ve seen that in action. I’ve played in games where the DM was just being a jerk, making arbitrary decisions to the detriment of the players and being inconsistent in the process. 

However, making rulings on these sorts of things is not something that is best left to “group consensus” for a number of reasons:

1. As the ref I’m the most familiar with all of the rules for the game. I can be mistaken, or forget something, but at the end of the day very few players have taken the time to get to know the rule set like I have. So I’m best equipped to make that ruling.

2. Any game that has lasted for a long time will have a set of house rules, a few or a lot, and I’m also most familiar with those.

3. Many of my players are utterly uninterested in making these sorts of decisions, they came to PLAY, not to RUN THE GAME. For these players, it is preferable for me to adjudicate and move on.

4. I’m fairly fast at making these sorts of decisions as I have had to make many of them, so we waste a lot less table time.

5. It adds to the sense of immersion and accomplishment when I make these decisions instead of the players. When they make adjudication decisions the game can seem less challenging, as they can adjudicate in their favor. If the game world is too mutable to their desires then it feels like they are writing a story, not going on an adventure.

6. When the adjudication doesn’t impact all PCs the same way, it adds to the impartiality if I make the decision. So for example if it is an adjudication about a class ability then it will only apply to some players, and leaving it to the players can compromise their decision.

7. It is not uncommon for refs to enjoy these sorts of decision making processes, making an in-game ruling is a lot like game design in real time, and that’s something many refs get a buzz from. But many players just find it overwhelming. Particularly when they realize that their decision will impact future play. I have many players that want no part of that.

8. Sometimes the players just can’t make up their minds, that actually happens a lot. Players have varying degrees of investment and knowledge of the game, and there are often interpersonal issues at play behind these decisions. Being the final arbiter allows the ref to bring the process to a close when it is taking up too much table time.

9. There are often situations where the PCs can’t be aware of all the factors in the decision making process, as the NPC/monster or environmental factors in play are unknown to them. To keep that mystery in the game it is better for me to make the call.

10. Game worlds have flavor, atmosphere, a sense of presence. Sometimes adjudication of rules can impact this aspect of the game. A ref has the ability to shape the game worlds flavor and atmosphere, and this also creates immersion and a sense of a living world that the PCs explore. It is much easier to maintain this when the ref can make rules adjudications. 

Having said all of this, the ref has to maintain a degree of impartiality, otherwise the game can seem unfair or “rigged” against the players. So there are steps I take when adjudicating a situation that isn’t covered by the rules. 

First, I tell the players what my adjudication is, and ask if there are any questions or concerns.

If there are any questions or concerns, we talk it out. They mention precedents they think would lead to a different ruling, and I make my case for my interpretation, or change my position based on their input. I’d say that the division on this in my games is about 80/20, e.g. about 80% of the time the players agree with me and we move forward with my call, and about 20% of the time I change my mind.

Then I remind them that any decision we make at the table is now the rule for our game, and that rule applies to NPCs/monsters just like the PCs. So if we rule that dropping on a foe from a height and striking them can double damage, then their foes can drop on them from a height and do double damage as well.

I then codify the rule in our House Rules document, and it becomes a part of our game.

I’m sure that this process could be made more democratic, or handed over completely to the players, but for the reasons I mentioned above I prefer to be the one who has the final say. 


So that’s the gig. I create a game world, I decide how it reacts to PC actions, and I adjudicate “corner cases” where the rules are non-existent or ambiguous. I think this is plenty for the ref to do, and is both engaging to me and rewarding for my players. It has helped me to sustain 4 concurrent campaigns over the last two years (now 5 as of this September) without mountains of prep, and allowed each of these campaigns to run as sandboxes where the adventure is directed as desired by the players. 

When I read about D&D campaigns where the ref tries to “hit story beats”, incorporate PC back stories, direct PCs to the “big events”, balance encounters for the PCs and “ensure that each player has a chance to shine” I just feel exhausted. I have managed to run engaging, rewarding and immersive games for my players without adding any of these elements to the game. It’s not for everyone, but if you are interested in trying D&D in a different way, it might be for you.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

 Consequentialism and Narrative in Dungeons and Dragons

One thing I have seen discussed a lot on social media is the question of the lethality of 5th edition. The consensus (as far as one can have one) appears to be that in 5th the DM has to mod the game quite a bit to make it deadly. As written, it is a game of superheroes, a game where the PCs are very likely to survive encounters. Indeed, there is a CR (challenge rating) system to help the DM calibrate the game so that PCs have a very good chance of surviving encounters. 

So you CAN run it deadly, but it isn’t written that way. That seems to be the most popular take. 

First caveat, I’m not going to debate this particular point as I don’t play 5e and I have no idea if it is true or not, all I know is a lot of people say it’s true. So for the sake of this argument, let’s ASSUME it’s true, and go from there. If it ends up it isn’t true, well, we can ignore a lot of what I have to say.

Second caveat, what I am about to argue is DESCRIPTIVE, not NORMATIVE. I’m NOT saying you SHOULD play D&D the way I do, I’m NOT saying that playing D&D the way I do is BETTER, I’m NOT saying that other ways are WRONG. I’m of the opinion that a good group and a good DM playing a robust, well designed system can create a satisfying, fun experience at the table in lots of different ways. 

So just to be clear, I am arguing for ONE WAY you can play D&D, I believe that AD&D, the system I choose to run, is exceptionally good at playing this way, and I’m sure you could “mod” 5e to do this as well. I’m also sure that there are other ways of playing that could create a similar experience, there are many ways to play.

Collaborative Storytelling at the Table

OK, here’s the tough part. 

In my preferred style of play, D&D is NOT collaborative storytelling. 

You can, of course, tell a story about your last session, in that sense it is a form of storytelling, but in terms of playing the game at the table, D&D for me is not storytelling. If you are familiar with collaborative storytelling as a practice, this is actually pretty clear. When people tell a story together they don’t generally stop and roll dice to see what happens, or consult character sheets. One person starts the story, and others add to it, reacting to and building on what came before. 

For me, D&D is a GAME first and foremost. And in a game, you are challenged in some way as part of the play process. Of course, some games aren’t built that way, but many are. You don’t “win” at D&D like you “win” at chess, but you can survive and achieve your goals at D&D, as opposed to dying, or failing to achieve your goals.

You can see this difference in perspective if you look at the language that is used to describe 5e games. People refer to PCs as “protagonists”, they describe “story beats” that you should hit as you play. They suggest that “everyone should get a chance to shine” in the game, which is really just another way to say that “everyone gets to be a protagonist in the story”.

For my preferred style of play, the PCs are not the “protagonists”, I don’t hit “story beats”, and the only way people get to “shine” is through their in game actions, I don’t make that happen for them. 

Now, just to be clear, D&D was designed with narrative mechanics baked into the game. So to some degree, it is meant to emulate story structures. So for example, D&D has hit points and saving throws. Both of these mechanics are there to ensure that your PC has some survivability in the game. Gygax describes them in exactly this way, he points to pulp/mythological/fantasy stories and says that the hero should always have a chance, even a remote one, of survival.

But there is an important difference, in many games that chance for survival is built into the game through active mechanics the players can apply, luck points, karma, moves, whatever. The players can CHOOSE to survive something that otherwise would have taken them out, as they have shared control of the story. And in games that don’t have explicit mechanics for the player to control outcomes, the DM can do this by fudging dice, allowing “redos”, that sort of thing.

In D&D, narrative mechanics are passive, if the PCs are going to survive a deadly situation it is through in game actions or luck, not through a metagame mechanic of the player getting to reverse a result or shift it from bad to good. The main reason for this is that D&D at its heart is a game, not a storytelling engine, so there is a degree of independence to the game world that can work against storytelling conventions and expectations. 

This, to me, is the biggest difference between the way the game is played today and the way I play it. Not ‘easy’ versus ‘hard”, though that sometimes maps on to what I am interested in. I constantly see DM advice on social media that tells the DM to shape the story for the players by fudging to save them so they don’t die “needlessly”, to ensure that every player gets a chance to shine in the session, to ensure that the session has a structure to it of building tension and a payoff encounter of some kind near the end. 

“Do whatever serves the story” is a very common piece of advice.

These are story based ideas for play. Stories have conceits. It is rare to read a long form narrative where the main character (and you can usually identify the main character) dies early on and the story follows other characters that were not focused on in the early stages. There is sort of an unwritten rule about narratives that stories are ABOUT the protagonists. They can have a rough run or an easy one, they can die in the end, but the story is ABOUT them. So the author MAKES exciting things happen to them, the author ensures they are around until the end of the story. There can of course be exceptions to this, but they are exceptions, when you pick up a book about a plucky soldier and her faithful dog spot, you get a book that follows that soldier and her dog around, not a story where she dies on page 5 and the rest of the story is about the world she lived in and doesn’t mention her anymore.

The reason I play in the style that I do, and the reason I play 1e AD&D, is that I DON’T want to tell a story, collaboratively or otherwise. If my players want a story they should go read a book. Books are great, they tell stories well. If they want a collaborative storytelling experience they can find that at someone else’s table, not mine.

What they get at my table is a GAME. And in the context of my preferred style of play, here is what that means:

1. Any PC can die, at any time.

2. Any PC or party can fail to meet their goals. 

3. There are no ‘story beats’ to the sessions, sometimes they are all high tension, sometimes they are picaresque, sometimes they are exploration/sense of wonder, sometimes they are all social role play, and most times they are a mixture of many things.

4. The only way to “shine” at my table is to play well, make good decisions or at least respond well to bad decisions. 

5. If your players want to be the “heroes”, they have to act like heroes. There is no guarantee that things will work out.

6. You can meet things that are far more powerful than you in regular play, there are no challenge ratings and the game is fundamentally imbalanced.

7. There are no “do overs”, no active mechanics for players to change results they don’t like, and all rolls are done in the open for all to see, there is no fudging of any kind by me or the players.

My job as a referee is to be, as much as possible, a neutral arbiter. That doesn’t mean there is no collaboration in the game between myself and the players, but it is collaboration of a certain kind. 

So for  example, I do the following things collaboratively in my game:

When the rules don’t cover something and I create a mechanic on the spot, I ask the players if they think it is fair, if they don’t, we keep at it until there is consensus

I often get the players to make decisions about aspects of the game I am improvising, so for example, if I haven’t named the Inn, I ask them for names, or if I haven’t decided on whether or not the guard has flint and steel on him, I sometimes ask the players if they think he does.

When I don’t know what to do I will listen to the player chatter, what THEY THINK is happening, and if I like it I will use it. Sometimes I will change what I had planned as the player's suggestion is cooler.

When a PC is “down” (e.g. paralysis, off from the main group, dead) I will have the player roll for the monsters/NPCs to give them something to do

I run a full sandbox game, where the players go and what they do is entirely up to them, they set the pace and the goals for the game, not me

But I don’t collaborate with them on the outcomes of dice rolls, or whether or not to accept a result that came out of play. Those things are resolved by dice and mechanics, even if they don’t “serve the story”. 

Why Bother?

So what is the point of all this. Why not run D&D like a storytelling engine, one where the DM and the players are telling a story together? I don’t run my games this way for two primary reasons, consequentialism and skill.


D&D is a game where your actions can have consequences. If you attack someone, they will respond, if you are challenged by something much more powerful than you and you don’t back down, you might die. If you break the rules, someone will seek you out to challenge you for it. 

I don’t run the game like a story as this can blunt the consequences of the game. One great example of this is violence. I have been hearing for decades the claim that “D&D is violent”, and of course, it can be. But one of the reasons for this is that DMs have a tendency to blunt the consequences of violence. So for example, I have seen all of the following over the years:

Give out HP kickers to the party, e.g. give them full HP at levelling

Start PCs at higher levels, e.g. start at 3rd or 5th

Had the monsters/NPCs fight even when they were clearly outclassed

Saved the PCs from certain death with extra saves or DM fiat

Made exceptions for PCs that don’t apply to NPC/Monsters

Brought back PCs to life cheaply

In short, DMs quite often blunt the violence of the game when it is directed at the PCs so they can survive, to “serve the story”, or to allow PCs to live as killing them “ends their story”. Obviously this doesn’t happen all the time, PCs die in “story focused” games as well, but much less frequently. 

A lot of D&D games are run such that the PCs survive when the rules or the dice would have indicated otherwise, and this blunts the consequences of violence. This encourages the PCs to use violence as a tool to achieve their goals, and thus, voila, D&D is a violent game.

Now, step over to my table for a moment. I have been running 4 campaigns over the last 2 years, a total of 80 hours per campaign per year at the table, and 28 players between the groups. All of them have used violence to achieve their ends. But they do not use it often, and they have suffered consequences for it when they have. We have had multiple fatalities, and entire sessions free of any sort of combat whatsoever. 

My players are cautious, they only take out their swords when they know they have an advantage, or they have no other choice. 

Consequentialism is about letting the consequences of actions stand in the game, so the PCs choices and actions matter. Another example of bringing back PCs from the dead. It is allowed in my game as it is allowed in the rules. But it is very expensive and difficult to secure. Most of the time, unless the party is high enough level to be able to do it themselves, they have to find a powerful priest at a temple and pay for it. But they rarely have that kind of wealth, so they will have to perform a service instead.

The last time one of my groups wanted to bring someone back, they ended up on a quest that lasted a year of game time and about 60 hours of table time. It BECAME the game for a while. So it can be done, but it ain’t easy. 

The point of all this is to make it such that the players know there are consequences to their actions. Why is this important? I find that games with consequences that stick are more immersive than games where you can alter the results to “fit the story”. This may not be the case for everyone, but in my groups I have witnessed a significant level of immersion when the game has meaningful consequences of this kind. Players know I won’t save them, that their actions will produce reactions that may not be to their liking. 

Personally I think that this contributes to immersion as it gives the game world some verisimilitude, in real life you can suffer the consequences of your actions without being able to change them. This makes the game feel independent of the players, and when this happens it is easier to become immersed in the game. 

Another benefit of consequentialism is that it teaches a good lesson for my players. I run games for kids ages 10-17, and learning that your choices have consequences isn’t such a bad lesson to get from a game.

Finally, and this is a big one, consequentialism means that victories are EARNED. The players know I don’t make it easy for them. Recently in my Thursday after school game a player finally became a 1st edition AD&D bard. For those of you who aren’t familiar, you have to be a thief, advance to mid-level, then switch classes to a fighter, then advance to mid-level, then switch to a bard. It took him about 2 years of gaming to achieve this goal. 

I could have hand waived the requirements, I could have used a bard variant that starts at 1st level, I could have spiked his XP, or given him tons of treasure to get him there faster. 

But I didn’t do any of this, he just played it out and EARNED IT. And when he got there, he was ecstatic, his fellow players were impressed, and it was an achievement. He didn’t write it into his backstory, he made it happen at the table. Consequentialism is about achieving things not because it “serves the story”, but because you went out and got those things by playing the game.


The other piece of this puzzle is skill. Some games require skill, some luck, most some combination of both. D&D, when run as written, requires both. Playing D&D as a game, not a storytelling engine, means that the only way to do well other than luck is to develop skill. To learn from your mistakes and do better the next time.

So for example, AD&D has CRUEL surprise rules. Depending on the roll, you can be surprised for multiple segments and your opponents can get multiple attacks against you. Surprise is remarkably deadly in 1e. Now, you could blunt the deadliness of surprise by eliminating it entirely as it is too deadly, by restricting it to one attack only, or by any other method that allows you to serve the story. Because having the party, or a member of the party, die by surprise is something that doesn’t fit everyone’s idea of what a story is like. I’ve seen many people say they don’t oppose death, just ignoble death, and dying because you were surprised and shanked isn’t noble death for many, it DOESN’T SERVE THE STORY.

But I run AD&D surprise as written. My players have learned how deadly surprise is, so now they take precautions and play smart. They have learned through consequentialism and developed skills in game. 

Another example I’ve seen in many of my groups is distance. Distance is the best armor in D&D, it’s much better to keep your distance and avoid melee if possible, as many close up attacks are deadly. So my group often uses ranged spells and missile weapons in combat. But they have learned that AD&D has unforgiving friendly fire rules, and AOE spells can catch everyone, so now they coordinate their attacks to minimize the chances of friendly fire.

That’s a skill they learned at the table because the game is so deadly. Again, I could blunt the consequences of this for the purposes of the story, does it serve the story for a PC to die because of another PCs badly shot arrow? My guess is that many DMs would hand wave this, or just not use friendly fire rules, as they would feel this is a cheap way to die. 

In my game, the players learned the consequences and improved their skill at the game in response. 

Why is this important? Because I’m running a game, not a storytelling experience, and in games, it’s satisfying to improve your skills. It’s fun to play, but it’s also fun to play WELL, and if you play a consequentialist game, your players will develop that skill. In a metagaming sense, your PCs are your learning engines, through their misfortune the players learn to play a better game. 

There is something particularly rewarding about building skills at something, getting visibly and noticeably better at a game can build confidence, and give players the willingness to try new things. Again, I run games for kids, and watching them grow in skill and get better and surviving the game and achieving their goals is very rewarding. 

Of course, if you see D&D as primarily a storytelling game, you might not care about building skills and having consequences. And that’s fine. The game doesn’t have to be played this way. And you can have a ton of fun playing D&D as a story focused game. Stories, even when they aren’t deadly and they bend the consequences a bit, can still be challenging and rewarding. 

But that isn’t the only way to play D&D. And I would submit that the people who are finding 5e to be unsatisfying might be disliking it for precisely this reason. They are playing it like they are telling a story. If this isn’t chiming your bell, I would recommend trying to play the game with a more consequentialist focus. It will mean making some tough calls, and watching as the dice do horrible things to your players. There will be times when you will be SORELY TEMPTED to fudge dice, reverse results, hand wave things, because that will make for a “better story”. 

My advice is to try and resist these impulses and see how the game plays. Rather than asking, “how can I alter this result to fit the story we want to tell” try asking, “how is the game world going to react to the players actions”. Don’t change results to serve the story, play the game as it lays and tell stories about it afterwards.

Trust me, it will be epic.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

The Sting of Steel - Ten Magical Swords for your D&D Game!

Seeing as it’s apparently Swordtember this month, I thought I would make a contribution. I have no artistic skills, so I’m not contributing pictures, but I have home brewed a number of interesting swords that I will review here. 

When I design magic items for AD&D I try to plug them into existing game mechanics. As fun as it is to create swords with high magical “+”, they can get dull after a while. Instead, I try to find interesting game mechanics or spells and wed these to the sword in question. I also like to put in the occasional cursed weapon, but rather than having the curse take effect right away, I usually delay it for a time, creating a lot more drama!

I also like to homebrew items to keep things interesting, players can get a bit jaded after a while with predictability, new items add back some wonder to the game.

Here are 10 new magical swords that will be in my upcoming setting supplement.

1. Bissandrith’s Sword of Cleaving 

The sword of cleaving radiates magic upon detection, and has a +1 enchantment. However, the sword may hit any foe, no matter what variety of weapon is normally required, on a successful "to hit" roll. For example, a sword of magical cleaving could hit a creature that is normally only hit by silver weapons, blunt weapons, +3 weapons, or cold iron weapons, etc.  1000 xp, 6000 gp

The idea here is that AD&D has plenty of creatures that can only be hit by certain weapons, this one hits ANY of those creatures, but with only a +1 bonus.

2. Borghental’s Razor Sword 

The razor sword (bastard, long, short, two handed, roll d4 in this sequence) has a +2 enchantment, and is constructed of an unknown alloy that gives the sword a dark green color. A razor sword has the unique property of doing large victim damage against small to medium victims as well as large victims. 2000xp, 12,000 gp

This is another mechanic that only really works in AD&D, as 1e differentiates between S/M and L creature damage. Since the L creature damage is higher, the sword is just a bit better than regular versions. 

3. Burglar's Blade

A burglar's blade is a +1 magical weapon. In the hands of a thief two additional powers are evident. First, up to twice per day for 5 rounds maximum each time the wielder can invoke a protection from normal missiles spell. Additionally, they may use the sword one handed without penalty and without falling while climbing a wall. To determine the type of sword found roll d8: 1-3 short,4-6, broad, 7-8 long.   1% of these blades are cursed and will emit a piercing wail when mid-way up the 7th wall climbed with the sword. 2000xp/10,000gp

This one is geared to thieves, specifically those who break into locations by climbing walls. The protection from normal missiles spell keeps them safe from guards shooting at them, the ability to melee with the sword while climbing a wall is just pure flava.

4. Chinook Blade

A Chinook blade is a +1 falchion, +2 against water dwelling creatures. The sword can manifest a dry, warm wind that blows through a 2” square area, with the wielder at its base, centre or edge. The wind lasts for as long as the wielder concentrates (while concentrating the wielder cannot fight), or 1-3 rounds without concentration . For every round a being in the AOE is exposed to the wind it leeches off 1 hp (no save), which is stored in the blade, for up to the wielder’s level in targets each round. When the blade absorbs 50 hp the wielder may transform  into an invisible stalker for 1 hour any time thereafter. When the wielder transforms they will have 3-18hp regenerated. The blade then resets itself and new HP must be drained. Each time the first HP is drained after the blade resets, the wielder must make a save versus death or experience 2-4 rounds of severe pain, -3 to hit, 2 point AC penalty, no spellcasting allowed. 3000xp/18,000gp

The idea with this sword was that it’s abilities take time to manifest, rather than giving it a big “+”, the sword builds power over time and culminates in the ability to transform the user. I’ve placed this one in my current campaign and we’ll see if anyone finds it.

5. Corpse Blade

A corpse blade is a+1 magical weapon, +2 against undead, and is made of a dull, yellow metal covered with engravings of skulls and skeletons. Once a day for up to 1 turn it will make its wielder invisible to undead. To determine the type of sword found roll d8: 1-3 short, 4-6 broad, 7-8 long. 1% of these swords are cursed and when used to make the wielder invisible to undead for the 7th time the sword will thereafter draw all undead within a 8" radius to the sword wielder for one full 24 hour period.1800xp/8500gp

Here, rather than giving a huge bonus against undead, or some special purpose power that harms them, the blade protects the wielder from undead. 

6. Cutpurse's Cleaver

A cutpurse’s cleaver is a finely wrought broadsword with a +1 magical enchantment. Its grip and hilt are made of cold iron wrapped in platinum weave wire, its blade is made of steel polished to liquid silver in sheen, not glowing, but highly reflective. It comes in a scabbard plated with obsidian. For a normal wielder it is a +1 weapon. In the hands of a thief it is +1, +2 vrs large sized creatures. In addition, it has the damage and weapon vrs AC profile of a two handed sword.  Rangers of chaotic alignment have found it to work for them as well. 2000xp/8000gp

This one was one of those ideas that just seems obvious when you think about it, why not give a weapon that does minor damage the weapon profile of a weapon that does major damage. Simple but effective. 

7. Hydra Blade 

A hydra blade is a +2 sword made of a dark green metal. When the wielder is confronted by multiple foes the hydra blade gives the wielder one extra attack for every foe they face beyond the first. The blade will not give multiple attacks against the same foe, and can give a maximum of 4 attacks in any given round. If desired, the extra attacks can be used to parry incoming attacks (dropping the weilder’s AC by 4 points) but again, only one from each foe, not multiple attacks from the same foe. Roll to determine what kind of sword is found: d6: 1-3 short, 4-5 broad, 6 long. 1% of these blades are cursed and when they are used to defend against 4 opponents for the first time the user must save versus death magic or be permanently polymorphed into a 8 headed hydra. 2500xp/10,000gp

I like swords whose abilities are only triggered when something specific happens, in this case when the wielder is “mobbed” by opponents. 

8. Inferno Sword

An inferno sword is a +1 blade, made of a coppery-orange metal, roll d6 to determine type: 1 short, 2-3 broad and 4-6 long. When the sword is placed in an existing fire, torch sized or larger, it becomes covered with flame. That flame may be used in one of two ways:

- The flame may be kept on the sword for 1-4 rounds, giving the sword an additional +1 to damage, +2 to damage versus cold using creatures. In addition, the flame will cause anything flammable it strikes to start to burn for 1-3 additional rounds (doing 1 hp damage per round and objects to save versus regular fire or be destroyed). 

- The flame may be “thrown” once up to 2”. A successful “to hit” will set flammable targets on fire for 1-3 rounds, doing 1 hp of damage per round and causing any flammable  objects to save versus regular fire or be destroyed.

These swords save as hard metal with a +2 against cold attacks. 1500xp/7000gp 

The benefits of this sword are situational, which makes it more interesting and makes it necessary for the wielder to think tactically to get the most benefit out of the weapon. 

9. The Sword of Minerva

The sword of Minerva (aka an “owl sword”) is a +1 sword, +2 against magic using creatures. In the hands of a thief however, its true power is known. Roll a d6 to see what kind of sword is found: 1-2 short, 3-4 broad, 5-6 long. It has two primary functions. 

First, the thief has an improved ability to read languages. The thief’s RL percentage is doubled, and the ability to speak and write the language is added. This ability can be activated for a maximum of 1 hour per day total, if the wielder attempts to extend the power beyond this there is a 5% cumulative chance per additional turn that they will go permanently insane. 

Second, the thief’s chance to misunderstand a scroll spell (for a 10th level thief) is reduced to 10% from 25%. It does not, however, allow a lower level thief to read scroll spells. 2000xp/8000gp

I like thieves, and jazzing up their abilities with a sword is one of the most fun ways to give them an edge. In this case I tied it to a specific pair of abilities, but not combat abilities, to make it a bit different.

10. Moon Blade

A moon blade shimmers a sparkling silver and is a +2 magical weapon. In the hands of a thief it can be used, whenever under moonlight, to transform them into a wererat for up to 1 hour. All the wielder's gear will remain on them after the transformation. 1% of these blades are cursed and if used on any night other than a full moon for a transformation, instead the blade will summon 1-10 wererats that will seek to slay the wielder and secure the blade. 4000xp/20,000gp

Magic items with abilities tied to specific circumstances can also add a lot of flavor to the game, and give the ref a reason to track things like whether or not the moon is full!

Feel free to introduce any of these badass blades to your campaign, and watch the players try to figure out what you have done!

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