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Showing posts from 2016

It's All About the Crits: Critical Successes and Failures

When you roll a 1, something bad happens; when you roll a 20 something good happens. It is a simple roll in many systems that can be the curse or bane of players and GMs. Today we're going to be discussing it in D&D 5E, however this rule applies lots of places.

Lets get some terminology out of the way first. An attack roll is made when a creature attempts to hit a target using a weapon (which could a natural, like a fist or claw) to hit a target. A saving throw is a a creature trying to resist or avoid an effect of something like a spell or a trap. A skill check is used when a creatures applies its knowledge to answer a question or its skill to perform a task.  For our purposes, this creature will be a player character.

For attack rolls, a 20 deals double damage dice, and a 1 misses in 5E RAW. These two effects nearly cancel each other out over the long haul, although not perfectly (math left as an exercise for the reader).  Every PC on every attack has the same change of a cr…

A Stern Warning

Dreden slammed his fist against the table. "DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?!"

"Yes," said the two hobgoblin warriors who faced him across table.

"You cannot go above ground. We cannot be discovered, " said Dreden, his brow furrowed so that it was nearly touching his nose. "This mission will fail if you disobey."

"Yes, commander," the two repeated, one slightly before the other.

Dreden sat into the chair, lumber creaking under his muscular hobgoblin physique. The two warriors seemed fidgity. It was the white cloaks and the white helmets. They were too bright, too clean, and too civilized when they were above ground.

"Now what is the status of the tunnels?" Dreden spoke slowly. His face was normal again.

"The southern tunnel is slow going. There is bedrock under the river." said one warrior.

"The northern tunnel is a day ahead, so far as we can tell, " said the other.

Dreden frowned. "Escort Gitrid to the forward…

Numeneric Thoughts: Flying Things

Some of the things that fly in the Ninth World:

There is a winged creature with feathers, webbed feet and a large circular mouth. This so-called suckler bird likes to land on large pieces of shiney metal and glass and suck the debris off it.  A large flock of them can clean all the windows in a good sized town in a day. The young, however, have been know to attach to eyeglasses, mostly just frightening the wearer.Numenera hunters near Beoth reported disturbing some sort of nest before leaving town.  A week later small flying disks appeared, cutting through timbers of local buildings. The residents were able to take shelter in stone buildings after one resident was killed, but are scared to go outside.There is a four-legged animal in the Wyr river valley that can spread its limbs and glide.  The 3 foot creature has generally been content with swooping down and grabbing live food from the river, but recently it has taken to snatching livestock and small animals in settlements near the ri…

Numenera Thoughts: The Sky

A few thoughts concerning the sky in the Ninth World: A man in Uxphon has found a Numenera in the mountains. For 10 shins he will let you point it at the sky on a dark night where is shows large invisible cities floating in the sky.In Navarene, several people have found objects left behind by a lumbering automaton that rambles quickly across the land. Friends and neighbors described the objects as large eggs. One witness said that when activated they glow crimson. A short time after, those that had the object were found burnt to death after a bright flash from the sky.A large forest of trees stands outside of Dobrin, metallic with large metal leaves that point toward the sky.  On the first day of summer and the first day of winter, the sky above them pops and crackles with lightning. Anything above the forest is burnt into dust.Near Mt Jaspar there is a machine in the sky that flies from a fixed spot out past the Deeplight and back every week, as if on an invisible cable. At night its…

Numeneric Thoughts: More Trees

A few more thoughts related to trees in the Ninth World:


There is a remote village, south of the Cloudcrystal Sky Fields, where the trees seems to change color randomly. When the trees turn red, the residents close up their houses and refuse to go outside.Just outside of Hamuth, there is an strange old man who grows a garden of trees. If you go near the trees at night, the trees will glow and chitter, and the old man comes out and chases you off with a numenera that gives off a blinding bright light.A guide in Bodrov warned me just the other day that if I get lost in the Westwood to seek out trees with triangle leaves. He says if you tap them, they produce clear water suitable to drink with an odd smells that keeps danger away,In Charmonde, wealthier citizens started planting a new fractal-leaved tree that were all the rage. There is a uproar at the moment: the trees are slowly moving a few inches each night and seem to all be leaving the city.Numenera hunters in the Ba-Adenu Forest ar…

Numeneric Thoughts: Trees

A few thoughts related to trees in the Ninth World:


In the Westwood, there is a tree that grows square paper-like leaves with holes in them. When you place one of the leaves in a slot in the trunk, the leaves change color randomly and the tree make artificial beeping noises. In Navarene, 3 hours walk south of the Amber Monolith, there is a tree that grows a new trunk each year, always in a slightly different direction, straight, always exactly the same length, 17 meters. The locals reckon  that it is 78 years old, since there are 78 trunks coming out in random directs. It is running out of space for new trunks.There is a tree that grows straight up near Stirthal with no visible leaves or branches. It is so impossibly tall that the top is no longer visible. The local loggers *really* want to cut is down, but the there is no telling which way would fallIn the Beyond, near White Lake, there are rumors of a tree whose leaves sing when the breeze blows a certain way. A local seer claims tha…

Fixing Necromancers

Necromancers are great, except when you're in a party with one with a hoard of undead. 25 Minutes after initiative starts you get to take your turn after all of the skeletons and zombies have done their thing. For this reason, I limit a player to one PC + 2 other combatants in most cases. Sure, you can have 10 zombies following you around, but only two are fighting, because we're not all waiting on the rest to do something.

The problem with this rule is that is really pulls the rug out from under the necromancer. I don't really want to do that. So here is my rewrite to Animate Dead to help fix the problem. The CR derivation used in this new "At Higher Levels" is meant to balance the raw CR increase with the action economy. Time will tell if I got it right.

Replace the "At Higher Levels" text of Animate Dead with this text:


At Higher Levels: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, you animate or reassert control over stronger un…

Interesting Encounter: Divide and Conquer

Interesting encounters are short descriptions of encounters that GMs can use to build on.  They combine unique aspects of different types of foes, terrain, skill checks, weather, combat, etc in order to provide more unique challenges than hit monster; repeat.

It has been a while, but I've finally gotten back around to blogging. This week we're working through a divide and conquer trap scenario.

WARNING: We're going to use a bit of a qunatum ogre in this scenario. A "quantum ogre" is a case where the outcome doesn't depend on the choices that the player makes. The story goes that a PC reaches a tunnel where he can go either left or right. However, wherever the PC goes, he finds an ogre. The ogre is in both places (and not in both places) at once until the PC chooses, then it is placed. Thus the name... quantum ogre.

Start out with a room. In this room, there is a pressure plate in the center of the room. The plate is unremarkable and easily mistaken as part of…

Playing the Really Evil Villain

A woman goes to her brother-in-law's funeral. There she meets a friend of the family, a man that she doesn't know. They talk, they laugh, and the woman finds herself really liking this man. However, at some point she loses track of the man and never gets his name, number, and no one seems to know who he is.  A week later, the woman kills her sister. Why?

If you don't know the answer, it is because most people have a part of their reasoning that discounts certain solutions to problems because they don't make sense. In this case, you might have missed the logic that the woman kills her sister so there will be another funeral, and she can find this man again. This solution seems unreasonable, so most folks can't find their way to it easily.

True evil is like this woman. It doesn't place the same weight on things as we do. What seems completely unreasonable to a normal person, seems like a logical solution to evil. Because most GMs are reasonable people (despite wh…

5E Starting Gold and Equipment for Higher Levels

The DMG has a rough recommendation for starting gold and equipment for higher levels, but with my groups running one-shots, we wanted to nail it down to level by level. Here's my DMG-inspired table.

Generally I allow equipment to be traded in during character creation for half book value, where applicable. I also, as a GM, offer to make custom magic items for players who can't choose. A list of magical items by rarity can be found here with stats available in the DMG. I also generally allow players to buy healing potions (2d4+2) for 50gp and greater healing potions for 250gp (4d4+4). PHB items are available at book cost at creation. I do not allow other equipment to be purchased except in game.

This is generally based off the "high magic" campaign.


LevelStarting GoldStarting Equipment / Magic Items1-160gp  OR Standard starting equipment2210gpStandard starting equipment3285gpStandard starting equipment4365gpStandard starting equipment5455gpStandard starting equipment65…

An Analysis of Death Rule Changes in D&D 5E

So after 66 session of me GMing D&D 5E with a party of 6 players, I have zero PC deaths. I have had a few close calls along the way, but no PC deaths. To me, for my game, this seems too low.

Now to be completely fair, my death rules, as I have used them, are not exactly rules as written (RAW). I ignore the instant death rule that basically states that a PC can die instantly if hit by massive damage. I consider it a cheap shot by a GM to kill a PC that way. I also generally don't keep trying to hit PCs while they are down.

So basically my death rules are straight death saves. Roll a d20. Roll a 1 and get 2 failures. Roll a 20 and you are back up with 1 HP. Roll 2 to 9, and you get one failure. Roll 10 to 19 and you get one success. 3 failures makes you dead. 3 successes gets you stabilized. Of course, if you get healed at any point from any source, your are back up too.

My thought was to mirror the instant death rule a little differently to increase the chance of PC death. In m…

Use the X-Card

The Gerridan

The gerridan are large intelligent water strider insect folk that live in a hive colony. They are found primarily underground in large water-filled caverns. They avoid all contact with other species.

The gerridan queen fully commands the drones of the hive using telepathic communication. This makes them a very dangerous enemy when angered. Generally, when threatened, the gerridan will use their water casting abilities to isolate the threat and retreat. The one obvious exception to this is when eggs or gerridlings are harmed. This is generally considered an act of war against the hive, and the entire hive will fight to the death.

Gerridan Drone Large monstrosity, lawful neutral
Armor Class 19 (natural armor)
Hit Points 123 (13d10 +52)
Speed 30ft., climb 30ft., water walk 30ft.
STR 16 (+3) DEX 16 (+3) CON 18 (+4) INT 13 (+1) WIS 14 (+2)  CHA 12(+1)
Senses water sense 120ft. (Can sense any motion in the water within range)
Languages Undercommon (understand only), telepathy
Challenge  estimated…

Changing Rules: Empirical vs Anecdotal Evidence

Everyone wants a better game. GMs will do many things to achieve this goal. Unfortunately, GMs delve into the role of game designer way too quickly without understanding a simple truth: GMs are not game designers. The two have different objectives. GMs want a fun game with a certain tone. Game designers try to build a system that is fun, but not vulnerable to exploitation and imbalance.

Normally, this is not a big deal. A GM can use experience to make small tweaks to a system to the get the game they want. If it works well, they want to pick it up and use it everywhere. Doing this can often cause more harm than good. As a GM and designer who tweaks my own system, I understand the desire and the dangers and have dealt with them first hand. The biggest alligator lurking in that swamp is the mystery of empirical evidence vs anecdotal evidence.
Evidence is data that contributes to drawing a conclusion. In this case we are talking about evidence for changing / adding / ignoring a rule. Whe…

Rolling for Contacts: Giving Players More Creative Input in 5E

Like many GMs, I feel my players don't influence the game enough. One of my goals is to always customize the game to fit what the players want. Unfortunately 5E is light on mechanics for this. To start to fix this, I am proposing a new mechanic: Rolling for Contacts.
Contacts are non-combat NPCs that the players have a connection to in order to get help of whatever non-combat form they want. The player gets 1 contact every 4 levels. To gain a contact during the game (not at level up!), they describe an NPC they want to gain as a contact and then the GM rolls a hidden skill check while the party is not in combat. That skill check must be related to the type of contact they wish to gain. For example, a good stealth skill check may gain a member of the local thieves' guild. A good religion check might gain a local cleric that would be a PC's friend. The player, however, gets to describe exactly who their contact is, in whatever level of detail is desired and appropriate.
If t…

Handling Traps with Skills in 5E

Here is a quick summary of how to handle traps with skills in 5E. Each step in this feeds the next step.


Passive Perception -- Allows a PC to notice obvious scents (acid vapor), sounds (click), feelings (floor seems suddenly uneven), and sights (is that a tripwire or a spiderweb) that may or may not indicate a trap. Be sure to have them notice things when there isn't a trap too.Active Perception -- Allows PCs to actively search for other trap clues. This requires a roll and perhaps, an action. Active perception usually does not involve touching anything, except to taste.Investigation -- Allows a PC to investigate a specific thing that was identified with perception. The player should describe what they do based on the scenario. They may choose to touch and interact with things. This could set off the trap. Investigation, if successful, can determine how the trap works and what the trap does. Some traps have hidden components or components far away that limit the results. Some traps…

Changing D&D: The Game You Want

D&D has changed a lot throughout its history. There is a strong old-school guard there always to remind us that today's D&D was not yesterday's D&D. The transition from 3.x to 4 to 5 has been a long arduous journey for everyone. All of the history, unfortunately, has convinced a lot of people to think they already know D&D. With 5E, things have changed, and I think more than ever, D&D can give a lot more folks the game they want.

Just the other day I was engaged with a Burning Wheel fan where he stated as a fact that D&D is a combat-based XP system and that leveling up with XP only gives combat skills. Really? Unfortunately it is a held over misconception from previous editions. 5E added backgrounds, a new mechanical hook for storytelling, which is clearly a nod to noncombat. There is no reason 5E can't be used as well as any rules-light system for non-combat encounters and character growth. It is true that a significant portion of the book material…

Judging Horror

Horror is the most difficult type of RPG game to run. Visual effects don't play well at the table. Sounds rarely make the players jump. Gore describe rarely has the same effect as on the big screen. Setting the tone can be hard, especially online. Everything that makes a good horror film is hard to translate. There are solutions, but today's question is, how do we judge whether or not our horror game techniques are working?

Horror is one of the few genres where bleed is expected. The things that our characters feel bleed over into our feelings. Likewise, sometimes our boredom with horror tropes and lack of tone can bleed over into our character. This bleed, in terms of judging our game, is actually helpful to us. It allows us to focus on the character without asking more difficult questions about the player.

With the character now in  our sights, we need to ask the right questions and make the right observations to tell if our horror game is working. In this case we are going …

Foam Cutter

I built a foam cutter today. It works great. I get start into the wonderful world of foam terrain.

Interesting Encounter: Hillbilly Island

Interesting encounters are short descriptions of encounters that GMs can use to build on.  They combine unique aspects of different types of foes, terrain, skill checks, weather, combat, etc in order to provide more unique challenges than hit monster; repeat.

Hillybilly island is inspired by the X-Files Episode "Home". If you haven't watched it, I will wait while you go catch it on Netflix real quick. Ok, so this encounter takes place on an island which you can place anywhere, making it a nice excursion during a sea voyage.

This island is surrounded by dangerous rocks and there are strange sea monsters that live in the seas nearby, both of which result in many shipwrecks. Along the edge of the island lay the hulks of ships, new and old, claimed by these dangers.

The PCs arrive via shipwreck caused by the rocks or a sea monsters. The island is very small and has two buildings. The smaller building is a shed. The larger building is a house. Both are rickety, one story, and…

Injury instead of Death

In some game you want to build a character and run all the way from beginning to end to see all the levels, gather all the experience and loot, and have an epic tale for the ages. In these games, consider dispensing with death rules and instead substituting injuries.

Wait, what?! You can't do that. There is no reward without risk. What will make the players afraid if their characters can't die? That isn't very old school of you. Is this a more millenial PC way of gaming?! What, are you afraid of making your players cry?

Yeah, I have heard all the arguments. The bottom line is that the game is about what the players and GM make it about. Don't force your way of thinking on someone else's game. Death rules, like any other rules, can be changed if so desired. Everyone gets to play their own game.

There is a valid point in the criticism -- there has to be some consequence to making choices. If dying isn't it, what do we use instead?  Of course, we could use the plot…