Archive for the ‘Inspiration’ Category

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!

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 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.


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 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.


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!

Boons and Setbacks in 5e

Posted: March 23, 2017 in Inspiration

Many of us have heard the term failing forward, but how can we use it in D&D? We play RPGs that have boons and setbacks, but can those ideas be brought into 5e? If you’re a DM who can think on the fly, you might be able to spice up ability checks and even attack rolls and saving throws in the world’s most popular RPG with a few very simple tweaks.

Defining Our Terms

First I need to define terms. A boon is a little something extra good that happens after you make a d20 roll, usually on top of success. For instance, if you’re picking a lock in a castle, you might learn a specific trick about the lock that gives you advantage on all future checks to pick locks in this wing of the building. Boons are often determined on the fly by the DM. Check out a list of suggested boons below to help guide you.

A setback (or botch or drawback or complication) is a little extra punishment that happens after you roll a d20, usually on top of a failure. In the lock picking example above, not only might you fail to pick the lock, you might also break your thieves’ tools trying to do so. Setbacks are often determined on the fly by the DM. Check out a list of suggested setbacks below to help guide you.

When Do Boons and Setbacks Happen?

Now that we’ve defined our terms, how and when do boons and setbacks happen. Before we get to when, let me ask you a couple questions that will help us answer how.

  1. To what kind of d20 rolls do boons and setbacks apply? Ability checks are by far some of the easiest rolls to come up with boons and botches on the fly. Attack rolls and saving throws can be a bit trickier, because the rules are more rigid with exactly what the outcomes of these rolls should be. As a result, if you decide to use boons and setbacks during combat, you may want to have a strict interpretation about what those mean (like you always have advantage on your next attack or get to move 10 feet for free) or create a random table (like my critical hit effects and critical miss effects) for consequences. For examples of static consequences, see the table below. If you and your group feel comfortable improvising these as well, go for it!
  2. Can boons only be applied when you succeed and can setbacks only be applied when you fail? Failure with a boon (sometimes referred to as failing forward), could mean in our lock picking example that you failed to open the door, but noticed the contact poison smeared on the knob before you touched it. Success with a setback could mean you picked the lock, but broke your thieves’ tools in the process. Adding these can make your gameplay richer, but it also adds more pressure on you as the DM to come up with ideas on the fly, so you don’t have to use them. You’ll also want to think long and hard about having failures with boons and success with setbacks when it comes to saving throws and attacks. If you’re using these techniques, perhaps they only apply to ability checks. If you’re using them with other d20 rolls, then maybe come up with a strict rule or table instead of winging it, unless you’re very comfortable with improv.

So when is it appropriate to use boons and setbacks? A few optional rules are outlined below.

Optional Rule: Five Above/Below

This optional rule allows you to apply boons based on the result of a character’s ability check, attack roll, or saving throw when compared to the DC or AC . Roll the dice, apply appropriate modifiers, and then use the table below to determine the result.

Result Effect
5 or more above DC/AC Success with boon
1-4 above DC/AC Normal success
Equals DC/AC Success with setback*
1 below DC/AC Failure with boon*
2-4 below DC/AC Normal failure
5 or more below DC/AC Failure with setback

*If you are not playing with these effects as options, treat the results as normal successes and failures.

Optional Rule: Know Your the Roll

This optional rule uses the unmodified results of the dice. Any natural roll of 15 or above grants a boon, while any natural roll of 5 or less imposes a setback. You can increase the ranges of these results to increase the frequencies of boons and setbacks to fit the needs of your group and story.

Optional Rule: Advantage Boons and Disadvantage Setbacks

This optional rule states that an ability check, attack roll, or saving throw is made with advantage, the result grants a boon, while anytime one of those rolls is made with disadvantage, the result grants a setback. Note that this rule does not mesh well with the suggested boons and setbacks that grant advantage and disadvantage on the next d20 roll, since it risks creating never-ending advantage and disadvantage.

Optional Rule: Natural 20s and 1s Only

With this optional rule you gain a boon whenever you roll a natural 20 on your ability check, attack roll, or saving throw and a setback whenever you roll a natural 1 on one of those rolls.

Suggested Boons

You have advantage on the next d20 roll you make.

You gain a piece of knowledge or hint about your current quest.

You can immediately take the Help action as a bonus action.

You can spend one die to heal as if had taken a short rest immediately.

Attack: You knock your target prone.

Attack: You disarm your target.

Attack: You deafen your target.

Attack: Your attack does an extra 1d6 damage. Damage type is chosen by the DM.

Save: You can immediately move 10 feet in any direction.

Save: You shout a warning which allows another creature of your choice who can hear you and has to make the same save advantage on their saving throw.

Check out my list of critical hit effects for more ideas.

Suggested Setbacks

You have disadvantage on the next d20.

An item being used in the action is broken.

You take 1d6 damage as a result of the setback. Damage type is determined by the DM.

You lose one hit die, 1st-level spell slot, or other small resource.

Attack: You drop your weapon or implement used to make the attack.

Attack: You fall prone.

Save: You fall prone or are moved 10 feet in a random direction if the effect already knocks you prone.

Check out my list of critical failures for more ideas.

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!

I’ve been preparing to run a game of Phoenix: Dawn Command this weekend and I have to say it’s brilliant. This RPG from the mind of Keith Baker is a beautiful merging of story and mechanics that encourages teamwork, roleplaying, and heroics from the players. Here’s a quick description of the game from its website:

In Phoenix: Dawn Command, you don’t gain power by killing others; you gain power by dying. After each death, you add additional cards to your deck representing the lessons you learned from your previous life. However, there’s a catch: you can only return seven times. So each death makes you stronger, but it also brings you closer to the end of your story. In addition, you don’t return right away and you don’t return in the place where you died. This is what drives tension: most missions are time-sensitive, and should you and your friends all fall without completing your task, you will fail… and when you return you’ll have to deal with the consequences of that failure. Because death isn’t the end, the odds will often be stacked against the characters; players are encouraged to take risks and to be prepared to make sacrifices. Death isn’t the end, but you want to make sure you make every life count.

Even if you’re only ever going to play Dungeons & Dragons, Phoenix is worth purchasing for the ideas and new mechanics it will bring into your game. In today’s post I’m going to show how you can steal a few ideas from Phoenix and apply them to D&D. If you like this post, you might like another post about stealing mechanics from other games.


If you want evocative, original story ideas, this game is full of them. Much of the game’s rulebook is devoted to the setting, Dalea, and goes into great detail about the world’s history, cities, and cultures. One entire section of the book unravels the mysteries of the Dread (an evil phenomena that is overtaking the Dalea). The final pages of the book detail an entire campaign that can be run, complete with amazing encounters, compelling villains, and interesting NPCs. In true Keith Baker fashion the text is sprinkled with plenty of interesting open ends and alternatives that are worthy of entire campaigns.  Many of these ideas you can be stolen straight-up. Most others require the smallest of tweaks to apply to D&D. I could go on, but I don’t want to give too many of the game’s juicy bits away.

GM Advice

In addition to the lore within this game, there’s a lot of great advice about running Phoenix that can be applied to ANY roleplaying game. The book discusses encouraging players to take risks and roleplay, what to do when you don’t have a full table, how to create interesting encounters, and more. The lore plus the advice make this thing worth the price of admission and we aren’t done yet.

Environmental Elements

In Phoenix every combat encounter has a list of interesting environmental elements that can be used in an attack’s description. For instance a battle in a tavern might have a chandelier, fireplacekeg of ale, mounted moose head, and a shelf of bottles. In Phoenix, a card-based game, when a character uses one of these elements in the description of an attack, they get to draw an extra card. The element is then crossed off the list, not because it cannot be used in another description, but because it cannot be used to gain the bonus card benefit again.

It’s easy to bring the same idea to D&D. You can write a list of elements right onto a battle mat, paper, or index card. If you’re a lazy DM, ask each player to come up with one and write them down. When each is first used in an attack’s description, allow the character to gain advantage on the attack roll. If advantage seems too powerful, give another benefit, like an extra d4 damage if they hit.

Attendant Spirits

We’ve all been there. One hour into a four-hour session a T-Rex bites the head off the druid and now Katy has nothing to do for the rest of session. Phoenix, a game that somewhat encourages players to die, has a solution for this. When a PC bites the dust, their soul can bond to another hero as an attendant spirit until they are reborn. This attendant spirit can communicate telepathically with the host and speak to others through the host’s voice when the host allows it. In addition, the spirit can spend unused resources to aid the host.

To bring this idea over to D&D, we can think about the dead PC’s unspent resources. Maybe the spirit can spend unused hit dice to instantly heal the host, gift unused spell slots (of 5th level and below) so the host can cast more spells, or give away some other resource. Once the resource runs out, the spirit passes into the afterlife or waits to be raised from the dead.

Death As Advancement

Of course the big idea behind Phoenix is its most brilliant. When a hero dies, they level up, but their seventh death is permanent and final. This creates a great tension in the game because players want their characters to die, but not too quickly!

You could easily create a mechanic in D&D that eliminates the usual come back from the dead spells (revivify, raise dead, reincarnation, resurrection, and true resurrection) and experience points, and has characters return at dawn after their death, now one level stronger. If you decide to play this way, I recommend setting a cap to the number of times a PC can return before they are dead for good. 7 works well for Phoenix, but you could pick 3, 5, 10, 20, or whatever you thinks works best for your game. (For more hacks and advice in dealing with death, checkout these posts: Death and Returning Modules, and When Death Isn’t (Always) The End.)


The PCs in Phoenix have a limited amount of Sparks that can be used to add +1 per Spark burned to any Skill or Attack Spread. Once a Phoenix uses all of their sparks, they die. Sparks do regenerate, but rather slowly.

With some caution you could add a similar mechanic to D&D. If you’re using death as a tool for advancement, I’d say simply give your characters 5 Sparks per level and allow them to be burned to add bonuses to ability checks and attack and damage rolls. Characters regain 1 Spark x character level at the end of each long rest. If you run out of sparks, you die.

If you’re not using death as advancement, this becomes far more tricky to balance. I’d say each character gets 1 Spark x 1/2 character level (rounded down) per day that can be used to gain advantage on any ability check, attack roll, or saving throw.

Or Just Give Phoenix A Try…

If you’re loving all these ideas why not give Phoenix: Dawn Command a chance? All I did was steal what was already there!

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!

Once again I’m continuing my quest to add killer undead to the options already available in the fifth edition Monster Manual for my world of Enora. So far we’ve seen husks, skeletal dragons, vampiric dragonsvampiric vines, and elemental undead. Now I’d like to turn my attention to updating (and adding my own twists to) some old favorites: the nightcrawler, nighthaunt, nightwalker, and night wing. Thanks to EN World forum user pukunui for the idea!


When shadows and evil are infused with the strong will of a powerful being, they take massive forms. Appearing as giants, purple worms, and winged-beasts, this animated shadow stuff abhor life and light and desire a world covered in a shadow of death.

Massive Murderers. All nightshades are enormous combinations of solid shadow and corruption. When a strong-willed, evil beings refuse to pass into the afterlife, their souls infuse the with the same material that creates the Plane of Shadow. The souls wrestle with the shadow stuff, taking as much of it on as possible in order to anchor themselves in worlds of the living. At the same time, the shadow sucks any tiny sense of morality from the soul, creating a new being of considerable size, horrific shape, and murderous intent.

Undead Generals. Nightshades are cunning beings, who stalk the Plane of Shadow, looking for wayward victims to kill and turn into other undead through dark rituals. These undead are bound to the nightshade for as long as it exists. They follow its every command. Many nightshades search for ways to lead their armies into the Material Plane, so they might swell their ranks and experience death on a grand scale.

Work Better Together. Nightshades have great respect for others of their kind. They often form alliances to increase their slaughtering capabilities and grow the sizes of their armies.

Undead Nature. Nightshades don’t require air, food, drink, or sleep.


Nightcrawlers resemble purple worms made of pure darkness. Despite their appearance, they are extremely intelligent spellcasters who have devastating strength, burrowing capabilities, and the ability to swallow ogres whole.


Nighthaunts resemble large gargoyles and are pure malevolence. As expert tacticians, these nightshades are the best at leading armies of undead or placing guards and strategic defenses around a fortress.


Nightwalkers are twenty-foot-tall humanoids silent as death. They are among the multiverse’s best stalkers and their dead eyes can cause panic in the most daring prey.


Nightwings appear as enormous bats made of darkness, but have the same level of cunning and guile as all other nightshades. Silent as death and nearly invisible against a black sky, these beings dive onto prey before victims even know they’re being attacked.

Want the Stats?

Grab the PDF below or on the Free Game Resources section of this site any time.


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!

Once again I’m continuing my quest to add killer undead to the options already available in the fifth edition Monster Manual for my world of Enora. So far we’ve seen husks, skeletal dragons, vampiric dragons, and vampiric vines. Now I’d like to turn my attention to updating (and adding my own twists to) two old favorites: blazing skeletons (or blazing bones) and the chillborn zombie.


Elemental Undead

Just because many wizards focus on one school of magic does not mean they can’t add a dash of another to their speciality to create a true nightmare. When a pinch of conjuration is added to the power of necromancy, skeletons bathed in fire and corpses armored in ice walk the land, eager for only murder.

Created by Master Mages. Only the most powerful mortals can tap into the power of the elemental planes when they make the dead walk again. These horrid creations are infused with elemental essence to make them stronger and faster while providing magical abilities that other undead of their ilk lack. A creator must be certain they can control an elemental undead before they create it, since the monster desires the mage’s death as much as any other living creature.

Furious Dead. Blazing bones and chillborn zombies have the elementals’ fury and the undead’s hatred of all things living, making them extremely difficult to control. They take a primal, raw pleasure in killing and are never satisfied.

Blazing Bones

Blazing bones are skeletons wreathed in ever-burning flame. They smell constantly of cooked marrow and screech like vultures when they attack. A connection to the Plane of Fire allows them to hurl flame and detonate their bodies at the moment of death.

Chillborn Zombie

Chillborn zombies have ice crystals embedded in their rotting flesh. The immediate area around them is deathly cold and their frigid touch penetrates to the heart. Their elemental connection allows them to breathe cold and, like the blazing bones, they also explode in a burst of energy when they perish.

Want the Stats?

Grab the PDF below or on the Free Game Resources section of this site any time.

Elemental Undead

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!

How great is The Adventure Zone? If you haven’t heard this hilarious fifth edition actual play podcast, stop whatever you’re doing and give it a shot right now. While the normal cast on the show is the crem dela crem of actual play awesomeness, during the holidays they went on hiatus and allowed the crew from The Flop House podcast (another great one) to take over the story for an episode. This special game was DMed by the great Stuart Wellington who has inspired me to write about an important topic: keeping the game moving.

Wellington’s players, The Hogsbottom Three, attended a dinner party undercover to complete a sensitive mission. I won’t go into more detail as to not spoil the story. What I will say is that this mission, like many heists in RPGs, had a lot of discussion among players as to what they should do next. It’s the kind of conversation that keeps players talking in circles about whether they should hide in apple barrels or sacks of potatoes. While this conversation can be fun to an extent, it also considerably slows down the game while tens of minutes are wasted talking about whether the kitchen or the drawing room should be searched for clues. A lengthy discussion about which duchess seems a more worthy target of a detect thoughts spell can cut into the chunk of time you need for an awesome boss fight (or other set piece) at the end of the adventure. Wellington knows this, and that’s why he kept the game the moving.

Whenever the adventurers started to overthink or argue in circles about what to do next, a new NPC would walk over an engage them in conversation or the butler would ring the bell and ask everyone to proceed into the dining room for dinner. Startling announcements were made. Surprising events happened! Wellington pulled out all the stops to push the adventure forward and so can you. It’s easier than it seems. You don’t need to plan for every conversation the characters are going to have to make this happen. Just follow my Wellington-inspired tips below.

List Out Events Chronologically

Wellington kept his game going by simply moving the action of a dinner party forward as it might normally occur without the adventurers there. You can do the same for any sort of structured event (such as a ball, thieves’ guild meeting, or night spent in a spooky cabin) by simply jotting down a quick list of events in the order you think they’d happen. This will take less than five minutes. Here’s an example.

The characters are attending a fancy dinner party honoring a newly named baroness because they have gotten wind she might be assassinated by a rival faction. Her assassination could spark a war, so it’s up to the heroes to stop them. Here’s what your list might look like.

  1. Cocktail hour on the castle balcony.
  2. Many important NPCs arrive.
  3. The PCs are recognized by Lady Duafaine, who slips them a note saying not to trust the baroness’ husband.
  4. The baroness arrives with husband on her arm and gives a welcome toast.
  5. Dinner is served in the great hall.
  6. PCs are seated at a table with Lord Marquet, who likes to gossip and knows all about the noble holdings in the area.
  7. The baroness’ husband gets up to give a toast in honor of his wife.
  8. After the meal, the band begins playing and the PCs are asked by guests to dance including the baroness and her husband,
  9. During the dance the baroness reveals in some way she is unhappy in her marriage.
  10. Lady Duafaine asks the band to stop playing and reveals she is the lich Necronstalla in disguise and some of the wait staff are her zombie henchmen! They attack immediately.

The example above shows how the party might flow if the characters chose to do nothing. Odds are most groups will take action, and you may not have every scene in your timeline play out. That’s totally fine. In fact that’s the hope. The list exists so the next time you find the characters talking in circles about what to do next, you can say, “And that’s when Lady Duafaine wanders over…” A new conversation or a change of scene reminds them of the ticking clock and provides them with some new information that allows them to take action. Whenever you feel the characters are dragging their feet, simply move to the next item on your list.

If the characters figure out Lady Duafaine is Necronstalla and attack before dinner is served, that’s ok. This list is to here help you move things along not be a full outline for the adventure. They might also take her advice and arrest the barroness’ husband (which is exactly the distraction the lich wants) which would also shake up the timeline.

A chronological list like this also helps you out when the players go somewhere you didn’t expect. Maybe one of them wants to investigate the kitchen because they’re worried the baroness might be poisoned. Depending on when they sneak into the kitchen, you might describe the wait staff moving mechanically as they lift trays and prepare to bring them to the hall. They don’t speak with one another and go about their tasks like focused robots. Your list told you that because dinner hasn’t been served yet, this is what the zombies would be setting up. Similarly, if a character goes into the kitchen during dinner to see what desserts are offered, they might be surprised to find none are being made… a tip that something indeed is wrong!

Make A List Of Random Events

Of course not all adventures are so structured. The most classic of heists, the bank variety, could follow the bank’s schedule if the characters are using stealth and deception to obtain their goals, or it could take on a less structured vibe if the characters are doing more of an old-fashioned stick up. In cases like these, where there isn’t a set schedule, you’ll just need a list of random events ready to go. You might event put them into a table like the one below. Whenever the characters are talking in circles, roll on the table or pick and event to shake things up.

d10 Event
1 The PCs are alerted their getaway vehicle is compromised.
2 The PCs get word their heist is trending on social media or in the news.
3 The bank enters lockdown mode. All the doors shut and lock making it nigh impossible to leave.
4 A security guard who is late for duty arrives on the scene.
5 An alarm the PCs didn’t know or plan for about begins to sound.
6 A hostage offers considerable wealth or information for their release.
7 A hostage recognizes a PC.
8 3d4 heroic hostages take it on themselves to assault the PCs.
9 A pregnant hostage goes into labor.
10 A voice calls from outside, “This is the police! We have you surrounded.”

Events like these should really keep the pressure on your PCs to keep moving. The longer they dillydally, the more the problems will start to pile up. This method isn’t just for ban heists. Zombie outbreaks, battlefield operations, and all kinds of other missions benefit from having a table like this.

Have A List Of NPCs Handy

No matter what you do, it helps to keep a list of NPCs that might engage the characters to move the story along handy. Don’t spend too much time on this. A sentence or two should be enough for you to improv a quick scene with the characters to keep their butts moving. Use this list in conjunction with your event list to really make your story work. In the bank example above a list like this might give you an idea of which hostage leads the charge against the PCs. Or the list could even make you think of some new events on the spot. Why wouldn’t intrepid reporter Maria Carrana try to engage the PCs for an interview as they rob her bank?

Here are some sample entries for an NPC list:

  • Maria Carrana – Bold reporter for The Daily Drift who will stop at nothing for a good story.
  • Gruff McGriffles – An old dwarf who loves talking about his days as a captain in the orc war.
  • Admiral Gutpunch – A spacemarine android who takes everything literally.

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!

Last week I unveiled my plan to make Enora my first fully published world. In that same announcement, I showed off a new player character race, the dwiefling. This week, I have a new cleric domain to share – Darkness.

Avos is the god of darkness worshipped by the dwarves and tieflings of Redwind, but you can use this domain for clerics who worship any deity associated with darkness, night, or secrets. I know that the first gods that spring to mind are evil: Lolth, Shar, The Shadow, Tharizdun, and Vecna immediately come to mind. That’s not the only way to play this though. There’s plenty of non-evil deities associated with darkness (just look at this real-world list). Different arguments can be made for Elistraee, Mask, Moradin, Selûne, Celestian, Wee Jas, The Traveler, and The Blood of Vol. Avos falls into this camp. His faithful seek comfort and safety in darkness and trust in the unknown.

So it is without further adieu that I present the Darkness domain. Please provide feedback as I consider these new items to be in playtest mode!

Darkness Domain

The Darkness domain focuses on what is hidden, both physically and within one’s soul. Followers of darkness gods depend on these deities to keep secrets concealed and loved ones safe in the darkness. These are powers many pray to just before they go to sleep so that they might wake again. Subterranean cultures in particular hold this domain in high regard, since they live in darkness. The gods of this domain are often depicted as hooded or concealed figures that sometimes lack form. Some of the gods are referred to as gods of night, dark magic, or secrets.

Darkness Domain Spells
Cleric Level Spells
1st sanctuary, sleep
3rd darkness, darkvision
5th fear, nondetection
7th black tentacles, phantasmal killer
9th dream, mislead
Bonus Proficiency

When you choose this domain at 1st level, you gain proficiency with heavy armor.

Favor in Darkness

Also starting at 1st level, you gain blindsight to a range of 15 feet.

Channel Divinity: Clinging Darkness

Starting at 2nd level, you hurl a shadow at one creature you can see within 30 feet of you as an action. That creature must succeed on a Constitution saving throw or become fully bound in the shadow for 1 minute. While bound in the shadow the creature is blinded and restrained. It can repeat the saving throw each time it takes damage, or on its turn as an action, ending the blinded and restrained conditions on a success.

Superior Favor in Darkness

Starting at 6th level, your blindsight increases to a range of 30 feet.

Divine Strike

At 8th level, you gain the ability to infuse your weapon strikes with divine energy. Once on each of your turns when you hit a creature with a weapon attack, you can cause the attack to deal an extra 1d8 cold or necrotic damage (your choice) to the target. When you reach 14th level, the extra damage increases to 2d8.

Darkness Savant

At 17th level, your blindsight increases to a range of 60 feet. In addition, targets of your clinging darkness take 4d6 cold damage and 4d6 necrotic damage when they first become bound in the shadow by failing a Constitution saving throw. This damage does not allow them to repeat their saving throws.

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!

Let’s talk about an Archduke of the Nine Hells! Both of my Exploration Age games that started during the launch of fifth edition are wrapping up. One campaign has a single session remaining! The entire story culminates in a battle with Bel, the former Archduke of Avernus, the first layer of the Nine Hells. (Note, if you’re unfamiliar with Bel, he’s mentioned briefly in the Nine Hells section of the Dungeon Master’s Guide on page 65 and in the old third edition source book Fiendish Codex II: Tyrants of the Nine Hells).

In my campaign the player characters formed an alliance of necessity with Bel. They had common enemies. Bel gave the characters the power to take out some very formidable aberrations in exchange for helping to reinstall him as the Archduke of Avernus. It turns out the characters were being used by the crafty devil to take out his rivals. Now all they are all that stands in the way of Bel turning their home plane into a brand new hellscape.

Since I needed to stat out this legendary fiend for my party to take on, I thought I’d share the mechanics with all of you! Take a look. You can grab Bel’s stats in the free PDF linked below and in the Free Game Resources page of this site. (Note: My version of Bel is extra powerful. He’s the campaign’s ultimate villain and he’s gained a lot of power thanks to the adventurers. I estimate his normal Challenge Rating would be somewhere in the low to mid 20s. Reducing his hit points, damage output, and AC and then replacing his Limited Magic Immunity with Magic Resistance is an easy way to make that adjustment.)

Bel: Not Your Average Pit Fiend

Image from the Forgotten Realms Wiki.

Image from the Forgotten Realms Wiki.


Bel is no ordinary pit fiend. The ground shakes and all but the strongest archdevils are cowed when the legendary general walks by.

Asmodeus Above All. Bel is the former and present general and adviser of Zariel, the current ruler of Avernus by decree of Asmodeus. During Zariel’s first reign, Bel served his mistress loyally, until she plotted to overthrow Asmodeus. Bel betrayed Zariel in order to please his greater master Asmodeus. As a reward for his loyalty, Bel became the Archduke of Avernus when Zariel was overthrown. Overtime Zariel proved her loyalty to Asmodeus once again and Bel fell from the dark god’s favor. Zariel once again ruled Avernus and Bel was demoted. This was the will of Asmodeus, and though the decision was a slap in the face to Bel, he respects the hierarchy of the Nine Hells above all. It is an insult to serve Zariel, who delights in keeping Bel as an advisor, but he will not go against the word of Asmodeus.

Coveter of Power. Though Bel will not directly oppose or betray Asmodeus, he still desires his old station as Archduke of Avernus. To this end Bel seeks creatures who operate outside of the hierarchy of the Nine Hells. Bel’s plots are layered and complex. The strange bedfellows he makes are often unwitting adventurers who don’t realize the true consequences of their actions until it is too late. Bel seeks Zariel overthrown again, this time permanently, or a way to coerce Asmodeus.

Dangerous Deceiver. Bel is an engaging liar. He forges perfectly worded contracts that have deceived ancient gold wyrms into handing over their souls. The devil can look into the soul of any person and tell them exactly what they want to hear in order to get his desired reaction.

Brilliant General. For centuries Bel has been leading armies of devils in Avernus, the first line of defense against the Nine Hell’s incoming threats, namely demons from the Abyss. He has been fighting the Blood War for as long as he can remember and the fact that he has survived and thrived in this environment is a testament to his strategic mind and the loyalty of his troops.

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!

Today’s update may look short, but it’s actually 16 pages of free PDF long. As you may know, for the last two weeks I’ve been expanding Storm King’s Thunder by adding a new giant lord to the adventure. Not just any giant lord either. A desert giant lord from Kobold Press’ Tome of Beasts!

In the PDF below you can grab new content for chapters 1-4, plus a whole new chapter, “Pyramid of Desert Giants,” that uses many a denizen from Kobold Press’ latest masterpiece.

LINK TO THE PDF: The Desert Giant’s Plan

I love to play using Roll20, so I’m making the maps available for you below. If you want to grab this expanded content for Storm King’s Thunder and the maps at another time, they’ll live forever on the Free Game Resources section of this site.



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!