Archive for April, 2017

A new episode of the podcast Rudy Basso and I make, Have Spellbook, Will Travel, is up on the show’s site!

The adventure into the below dark continues, with Party 13 split!  Oh no!  Will they meet new friends, or new enemies?  Listen and find out!

Tweet your own Levels Question of the Week at us or #levelsq on Twitter!

Send your mailbag questions via the Contact page.

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A few weeks ago I was running a game in my homebrew setting Exploration Age. The characters were on a beach slinging ranged attacks at an approaching metal warship full of anarchist dragonborn. That’s when Vegas Lancaster, who plays Ichabod Dragonsblood, drow bard, asked, “Hey can I cast heat metal on the warship?”

I laughed. “I don’t think the spell can heat up a warship.”

Vegas shot back, “Well it says, ‘Choose a manufactured metal object, such as a metal weapon or a suit of heavy or medium metal armor, that you can see within range. You cause the object to glow red-hot.’ No real parameters on the object otherwise.”

I’m sure this was one of those moments where rules as written clashed with rules as intended. The Dungeons and Dragons default assumption is that most boats, buildings, and other large objects aren’t made of metal so this would never come up. I didn’t realize I’d break the game with my (admittedly ridiculous) battleship.

Since there were plenty of other enormous metal objects in the party’s future, I didn’t want to say yes outright. I also didn’t want to kill a player’s cool idea, so I said, “You can heat the entire ship… if you use an 8th level spell slot.” Vegas agreed and the dragonborn fried.

That got me thinking about how spells could be used with higher level spell slots to do things beyond their normal description and the “at higher levels” description. I came up with a rough system below. Let me know what you think! I’m definitely still playing with it.

Using Higher Level Spell Slots

When it comes to using higher level spell slots in creative ways, there are two things I’m keeping in mind:

  1. I don’t want to step on the sorcerer’s toes. Metamagic is one of the sorcerer’s biggest class features. I’m not going to try to replicate what exclusively belongs to that class.
  2. Warlocks are use higher level spell slots to cast lower level spells. Pact Magic means a high-level warlock is always using 5th level spell slots to cast spells. While this won’t have too great an impact, since the intent is for warlocks to be able to cast a few powerful spells between short rests, I am still going to keep an eye on this, particularly as it pertains to spells that don’t already have an “at higher level” effect.
Increase Area of Effect

Spells that have an area of effect which is a cone, cube, cylinder, line, or sphere, and already contain an “at higher levels” effect in their description are eligible for this spell slot upgrade, which is used in place of the current “at higher levels” effect. The spell’s area of effect dimensions are doubled when the spell is cast using a spell slot two levels higher than the spell’s initial casting slot.

Eschew Materials

Spells that have a material component for which there is no cost listed are eligible for this spell slot upgrade, which is used in place of any current “at higher levels” effect. The material component is not required to cast the spell if the spell is cast using a spell slot one level higher than the spell’s initial casting slot.

Change Save

Spells that require a saving throw are eligible for this spell slot upgrade, which is used in place of any current “at higher levels” effect. If the spell requires a Constitution, Dexterity, or Wisdom saving throw, you can change the save to be one of the others in that list if the spell is cast using a spell slot two levels higher than the spell’s initial slot. If the spell requires a Strength, Intelligence, or Charisma saving throw, you can change the save to be any other save if the spell is cast using a spell slot two levels higher than the spell’s initial slot. You must describe how your spell has changed to require this new save.

Change Damage Type

Spells that deal damage are eligible for this spell slot upgrade, which is used in place of any current “at higher levels” effect. You can change the damage type of the spell to any other damage type if the spell is cast using a spell slot two levels higher than the spell’s initial slot.

Increase Effect

At the DM’s discretion, you can increase the effect of a spell to make it more potent. You propose how you’d like to use the spell. For instance you might say, “I’d to target a creature with and Intelligence score of less than 4 with Tasha’s hideous laughter,” or, “I want to block both undead and fiends with my magic circle.” The DM then determines if this action is possible and if so, what level spell slot should be used to create the desired effect.

To decide which slot should be used, DM’s should first ask, “Does this new effect come close to the effect of another spell?” If the answer is yes, then the spell slot required should be that comparable’s spell’s level plus two. For instance, if a character wants to shape a fireball spell into a 60-foot-cone, that’s an area similar to the 5th-level cone of cold spell, so the DM might tell the character this is possible using a 7th-level slot.

If the desired effect isn’t similar to any spell that already exists, then think about the scale sliding in powers of two. If the change is rather minor, it should cost a spell slot two levels higher than the initial casting. If it is a major change, it should cost four levels higher than the initial casting. If the change completely redefines what the spell can do, it should cost six levels higher than the initial casting. DMs should let the player know this is an experimental process and that rulings may change.

In all cases the spell should gain no other benefits from the higher level casting than what the player and DM agree upon.

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

A new episode of Table Top Babble is now available!

James Introcaso sits down with Rich Howard, game designer and host of the Young Justice podcast, and Darcy Ross, game designer and host of the Cypher Speak podcast, to discuss GMing underwater adventures.

Rich Howard Author

TribalityFrom the Depths

Gnome Stew

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If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

Session 0 is a term applied to a game session before a long campaign where the game master and characters come together to cocreate the world and character backstories. Having a session 0 is fun for many people, but others prefer to jump right in and start playing. I’m here to tell you there’s a way to get the best of both worlds. Simply put your session 0 in the middle of your campaign.

Why Put Your Origin Stories After Your Pilot Episode

Before I start a long RPG campaign, I usually like to get backstories from my players about their characters and have a world ready to go. That method is not for every game master and it’s not for every player. Some people, when forced to write a backstory or create a world, come up with bland and generic ideas that aren’t nearly as interesting than as if they had jumped right in and started playing. The give and take of improvisational storytelling with others spawns amazing ideas about a character’s background a single mind may have never come up with on its own.

For many players and game masters, the fun is in letting the story grow organically. “Oh are there house-sized spiders in this dungeon? Well that’s going to be interesting because I just decided Martha the PC is an arachnophobe!” is a split second decision made by a player that has just turned a normal dungeon crawl an interesting quest of character development. The player may not have thought to come up with that detail when writing a backstory and may not have wanted to add that detail because in Martha’s prewritten backstory she’s already afraid of caribou, waterfalls, and snakes (and one more fear would just be unseemly for a hero). Meanwhile the GM is using their spider dungeon because it was in the description of the pre-created world and now has to figure out a way to get caribou, waterfalls, or snakes into the dungeon to get the same development for Martha the PC. Letting the story form organically allows for some amazing, on-the-spot character development and story moments.

Yet there’s fun to be had in a session 0. We love to tell origin stories! Some of the most-remembered and loved episodes of television are the flashback episodes where we see how the gang of friends or heroes met. So do exactly that. Flashback. After your group has established characters, a world, and story, then go back and have your session 0. Here’s why.

Jumping Right In Allows The Party To Start As A Team

When you jump right into the game with assumption that you’ll flashback to an origin, the party has a reason to start working together. Maybe they don’t know why that is yet, but that’s fine as long as they work together. The reason for doing so will be discovered by all of you along the way if you have confidence in the storytelling abilities of the group. Sometimes an origin session can feel like wrangling cats as you try to bring together individuals with different backstories and motivations. Now when you play out your flashback origin session after characters and stories have been established, the players will feel more motivation to bring everyone together themselves, since coming together is an inevitability.

Better Incorporation of Backstories

The backstories of your characters become better incorporated into the campaign’s overall story if you wait for one to organically appear. If the GM is building the world as the story demands it instead of arriving with one fully fabricated, the overall story of the world can also adapt to fit choices the character makes. It’s an amazing give and take when you jump right in.

How To Run a Session 0 After Your Campaign Has Already Begun

If you decide to go this route with a longer campaign, here’s my tips.

Use Another System

It can feel strange to go backwards in the same system with the same characters. “Just what spells did Bob the sorcerer have at level 1?” A lot of systems have a level 0 character approach you can try, but these characters are usually very squishy and you want some survivability since, presumably, everyone lives through the flashback.

My advice is to use another system. Go for mechanics you’ve always wanted to try to keep it rules light, since you’ll probably only be using it for a session or two. For example: Dungeon World makes a great flashback sessions for games like D&D and Pathfinder. (Thanks for the hint Griffin McElroy of The Adventure Zone!) FATE is another great system that can be adapted to any genre. Both systems allow for heartier starting characters as well, which is a great thing since again, the characters are probably going to make it through the session alive.

A flashback session is a great time to explore a new rules system, since the players are already comfortable with the characters they’re playing and the GM is already comfortable with the world. That means you’ll have less on your mind as you try to tackle the new rules before you.

Give The Characters A Reason To Come Together

Now that you know the characters well, you can find a great reason to bring them together for their first adventure. You can use the relationships the characters have built within the cannon of your story and have a better idea of what matters to them. Plus the players know the characters come together eventually anyway, so they’ll work with the reasons you provide to build a great origin story.

Tie It Into Your Campaign’s Main Story

Now that you know where you’re campaign’s overall story is headed (or at least have an idea), tie your flashback session into that story. Drop hints of what’s to come and let your players bask in their character’s young ignorance. You’ll have a blast!

More Gaming, Less Talk

Many session 0s are chatty, with not a lot of action as people discuss what characters should do and how the world should be. When you do a flashback session, there’s plenty of chatting, but it’s all in character and there’s a lot more gaming action. So get to it!

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

A new episode of the podcast Rudy Basso and I make, Have Spellbook, Will Travel, is up on the show’s site!

James and Rudy are joined by Mr. Matt Uhrich, California Resident, to discuss acting with a Mom Director, having zero experience with D&D, and voice over acting versus stage acting (a conversation we never get tired of).  Also – book recommendations!

Tweet your own Levels Question of the Week at us or #levelsq on Twitter!

Send your mailbag questions via the Contact page.

VISIT AND CONTRIBUTE TO OUR WIKI!

Please subscribe to the podcast at one of the following places:

iTunes   |   Stitcher   |   Google Play   |   Pocket Casts    |   RSS Feed

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

A new episode of Table Top Babble is now available!

James Introcaso sits down with Jason Nelson of Legendary Games to discuss forest campaigns and his new Kickstarter for the Forest Kingdom Campaign Compendium. Then it’s a conversation with DSPN’s own Mike Shea of Sly Flourish about short adventures and his new Kickstarter for Sly Flourish’s Fantastic Locations.

Subscribe on iTunesGoogle Play, or Stitcher. Grab our RSS feed.

Follow Table Top Babble on Facebook or Twitter.

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

If you’ve been playing RPGs as long as I have (22 years!), then you know keeping combat fresh ain’t easy especially when you’re playing with the same players for a good portion of that time. How can we continue to surprise, delight, scare, and challenge our players who have seen all our tricks a thousand times over?

This week I’ve had the privilege of recording a few Table Top Babble podcasts with successful designers like Mike Shea, M.T. Black, Tony Petrecca, and Jeff Stevens and I asked them this question. These people have written some of my favorite combat encounters ever so I couldn’t let the opportunity slip by.

They all had a common idea about spicing up combat. Encounters share common elements that can be changed to create a challenging and unique battle with minimal effort. Think of each of these variable elements as having a dial that you can turn to make every brawl distinct.

I’m going to breakdown each of these elements below to show how you can use them to make an encounter legendary. You only need to crank two or three of these to make a memorable battle. If you try to play with too many elements at once, combat can get bogged down in the details as players wait for their turns.

Visibility

Visibility has an enormous impact on combat. Take a look at all the beautiful creatures with darkvision, blindsight, termorsense, and more. Those abilities really mean something and can give players or monsters a leg up in a battle that’s shrouded in darkness (magical or mundane), fog, or illusion magic. Foes who are fully aware of their surroundings might toy with enemies who struggle to get bearings.

Tips For Playing With Visibility:
  • Don’t make it frustrating. Let the players get creative and counteract the fact that they can’t see in creative ways, like creating clouds of flour to reveal invisible enemies or using the momentary light of a fireball spell to get a quick look at the area.
  • If you’re playing on a virtual table use available dynamic lighting features.
  • If you’re playing in person, consider running this particular encounter in the theater of the mind style. Using minis allows players with blind characters to see the position of other creatures and terrain so it ruins shrouded visuals.

Terrain

The landscape of an encounter can really change the way it is played. A few bits of interesting terrain will create better combat and storytelling in your games even if you aren’t sure how it will all come into play. Let the players surprise you! It’s not up to the DM to figure out how every brazier and tree can be a part of combat.

Tips For Playing With Terrain:
  • Let players get creative. In fifth edition D&D advantage and disadvantage make improv easy by taking a lot of math out of the equation. If a character wants to try to fell a tree onto an ogre, let them try! Even if a task is nigh impossible, failure is a more interesting than saying no. Once your players realize the world is theirs to get creative in, you can lay out the terrain that makes sense in a location and let them decide how to use it.
  • Terrain goes beyond the natural. Stairs, horse-drawn carts, and a ruined half-wall all count as terrain. Don’t just think about the natural world!
  • Smart creatures lair in terrain that favors them. A room where a beholder sleeps might be spherical so the aberration can take advantage of its ability to fly and use eye beams on enemies as they slide to the floor. A white dragon’s lair could be covered in slippery ice that also allows the beast to walk upside down on the ceiling!
  • While grids can make interacting with terrain easy, you can still rock terrain in a theater of the mind encounter. Simply write out some major terrain features on a piece of paper or index card and display it so the players know what they’re working with and against.

Space

Space defines the area where your encounter takes place. Is it a cramped dungeon hall with enemies attacking from either side? Is it an open forest sniper battle with hundreds of yards between enemies? Is it a battle that occurs as the combatants fall through the sky? All three are very different experiences. Cramped spaces make a battle feel desperate and wide open spaces make an encounter epic.

Tips For Playing With Space:
  • Don’t forget the third dimension. Remember that creatures with flying speeds take advantage of height all the time (as do creatures that can’t fly). Adding height to your encounter makes it far more interesting, realistic, and memorable.
  • You can add motion to your battle. Some of the most memorable action sequences in movies take place on the road, in the sky, or on a body of water. Your space can move if it’s a fight on rafts down river rapids or a chase across busy city rooftops.
  • If you go wide, remember to fill in the terrain. You don’t want your combatants to spend the first three rounds of combat simply moving into range of one another.

Hazards and Traps

A great trap or hazard can make a battle memorable all on its own. The floor slowly falling out of a room, a pendulum scythe, or an enchanted tapestry can add delicious layers of complexity to an encounter. If play with this element, be sure you don’t turn up too many other dials, since tracking these things can be a lot of work.

Tips For Playing With Hazards and Traps:
  • Roll initiative for most hazards and traps. That way you remember to use them. (To make it extra unpredictable, roll initiative for the trap at the start of each round.)
  • Let players defeat hazards and traps creatively… or at least let them try!
  • Most monsters are aware of the hazards and traps in their lairs and know how to avoid them.
  • Have a list of simple hazards handy for those random encounters.

Customize Monsters

There’s so many ways to customize monsters that this could be its own series of blog posts. A recent tweet from M.T. Black shows us just 20 of those options:

Reskin monsters, add abilities (using pg. 280 and 281 of the DMG), give them spells, resistances, immunities, and vulnerabilities, and change damage types to create exciting beasties that don’t do what the players thought.

Tips For Customizing Monsters:
  • Don’t worry too much about exact math. If you add a spell or ability that requires a DC, remember that fifth edition D&D’s bounded accuracy system means DC 10 is always easy, 15 is always moderate, and 20 is always hard. Let those numbers be your guide when give a monster a feature that requires a saving throw. If you need an attack bonus for an ability, just pull it from one of the creature’s other attacks.
  • If you want a tough monster, boost those hit points. This is a great way to make a tougher version of a monster without having to adjust anything else.
  • To make things really easy on yourself, just reskin monsters. Want a fire-breathing orc that can fly? Use a fire dragon wyrmling stat block.

Goals

Perhaps the largest thing you can do to make combat interesting is change the goal of the encounter. Too often are our battles each side rolling d20s until the other is wiped off the face of the earth. Change the game. If the odds are overwhelming against the PCs but all they need to do is grab a magic sword, stop a dark ritual, or save a prince, the encounter becomes more thrilling. You can read more about this idea in this blog post.

Tips For Playing With Goals:
  • Think about the goal of the monsters. What do they do to ensure they can complete the dark ritual or grab the magic sword before the PCs?
  • How do the monsters react if the characters achieve their goal? Do they flee? Pursue? Explode?
  • Ask yourself, “Which monsters in this encounter will sacrifice everything to stop the characters from achieving this goal?”
  • Don’t be afraid to throw more than one goal into a truly climactic encounter.

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

A new episode of the podcast Rudy Basso and I make, Have Spellbook, Will Travel, is up on the show’s site!

Party 13 Returns!  Andar and company are back, and delving deep into the Belowdark! Meet new and exotic creatures in this wild and wonderful episode!

Tweet your own Levels Question of the Week at us or #levelsq on Twitter!

Send your mailbag questions via the Contact page.

VISIT AND CONTRIBUTE TO OUR WIKI!

Please subscribe to the podcast at one of the following places:

iTunes   |   Stitcher   |   Google Play   |   Pocket Casts    |   RSS Feed

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

A new episode of Table Top Babble is now available!

James Introcaso sits down with Stephen Holodinsky, Justin Mason, and Chris Malidore of AetherCon to discuss attending, running, and planning online gaming conventions.

Big Book of Maps

Subscribe on iTunesGoogle Play, or Stitcher. Grab our RSS feed.

Follow Table Top Babble on Facebook or Twitter.

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

Have you ever sat down to run a D&D game and thought, “Oh crap. What am I gonna do? Why didn’t I prepare ANYTHING?” This happened to me sometimes as a kid and now it happens more than I care to admit as an adult. People get busy. There’s chores to be done, work to be accomplished, family obligations, social obligations, and more. These commitments also often get in the way of actual game time, so I’d rather run a game unprepared because who knows when the next time we’ll get to play is? Not only that, my players have cleared time on their schedules and made a commitment to the game. I don’t want to let them down. At the same time I don’t to run a bad game either which can be a result of unpreparedness. What’s a DM to do? You should prepare to be unprepared.

This blog post provides a few tricks you can try for those games when you couldn’t even spare the last-minute prep.

Read Adventures

Having an adventure you can pull off the shelf that you’ve already read makes life easy when you haven’t prepped. As a bonus, reading a well-written D&D adventure can be just as enjoyable as reading a book. Yet where can we find the time for pleasurable reading? We don’t even have time to prep our games! Fear not, there’s some solutions. First try multitasking. If you commute using public transportation or get a little cardio in on a treadmill or bike during the week, these are perfect times to read an adventure. If neither of those things work for you, remember – everyone poops.

I know reading the Wizards of the Coast hardcover D&D adventures can seem daunting. If you don’t have the time, desire, or money to read one, you don’t have to do that. There are tons of adventures you can for free (like on this site or found in Dragon+) or very cheap on the DMs guild or DriveThruRPG. Ratings and rankings can help you discover which adventures are well written as can the in-depth reviews from Merric’s Musings. If you’ve got time to scroll through social media, odds are you have time to read a short adventure.

As you read an adventure, the best thing to do is mark segments and encounters you really love. You just slap a quick post it note on a hard copy or place a bookmark on a PDF. When the fateful day comes that you’re unprepared you’ll be able to grab what you need and go. You don’t need to use the whole adventure, just take the parts you like (more on that below).

If you’re playing a longer campaign with a connected story, you can still make use of published encounters and adventures. Some simple re-flavoring (or re-skinning) will make everything fit in your story. For example, let’s say you’re running a story in which giants are the main antagonists, but you really want to use a red dragon encounter from Rise of Tiamat. Simply re-flavor the red dragon to be fire giant eldritch knight (the breath weapon and flight abilities are spells and the attacks are various weapons and stomps). The minions can likely stay the same. Boom. No math required. It’s all done on the fly.

Steal, Steal, Steal from Podcasts and Web Series

In a world full of actual play and advice podcasts and web videos, it’s even easier to multitask. The Adventure Zone, Total Party ThrillCritical Role, Behind the DMs Screen on The Tome Show, Venture MaidensDice, Camera, Action, and more have lots of folks playing or talking about their D&D campaigns. If you’re hurting for an idea, there’s absolutely no shame in stealing from these properties, especially if your players aren’t part of the audience of the property you’re stealing from. Even then you can make an idea work, provided you add a bit of a twist of your own or apply some of that reskinning.

Practice Improv

When you do have time to prepare, build a little improv into your game. Maybe write the first and last scene for a session, but let the players decide how to get from beginning to end. You can use random tables in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and have a few of the resources listed below ready to roll as a safety net. If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, maybe just have a single improvised scene and go from there. Improvisational storytelling is a muscle. Work it out, build it up, and you’ll be ready if you find yourself running a game for which you did not prepare.

Save What You Don’t Use

Sometimes players go off the rails, causing you to throw out what you’ve prepared. Don’t walk away from that sweet kobold dungeon just because your players decided to hunt pirates on the high seas. Keep that for your less-than-prepared day.

Let the Players Take the Reins

If you haven’t prepared anything and feel comfortable with improv, let your players decide where the story goes next. Maybe they have downtime between adventures and decide to pursue a plot thread from one of their backstories or an enemy that got away during a previous quest. Maybe they have a dark relic that they want to figure out how to destroy. Maybe they want to blow off the main quest anyway and hunt pirates. If this is the case, ask lots of questions at the start and listen to the players as they respond. Let them construct the plan of action. Ask what they want to do and how they want to accomplish it. Take notes and answer any of their questions and you’re ready to roll. For some players it might be weird to open up a game by asking, “What do YOU want to do?” but once they realize what’s happening, most will love it.

Find Products Made Just For This

In addition to the resources listed in this post, you might also want to checkout Kobold Press’ Prepared! by Jon Sawatsky and the Book of Lairs. The former is a book of encounters and the latter is a book of dungeons. Put ’em together and you got game nights to spare! I also recommend two products by Michael E. Shea of Sly FlourishFantastic Locations gives you a bunch of amazing abstract locations that can be turned into dungeons large and small. His latest (currently) ongoing Kickstarter for Fantastic Adventures is a bunch of short one-shot D&D adventures with fun twists and turns. This book can be used with Fantastic Locations to really flesh out adventures and have an awesome experience.

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!