Still in process, of course...
Sergeant Leonard heard the cries in the brush.
He abandoned his post minutes before the yips began, and even then, he trusted his lightfoot roots to carry him over the marsh to where the child lay. He was certain everyone had evacuated; the militias were ready on the rooftops. Their intel was good, their scouts intact. Someone must have been left behind.
His boots sink into dense muck and mud, noting the deer footprints that surrounded him. He checks the horizon once more, columns of ominous smoke rising. Must be the war party, I still have time. The cries sound again - someone is sobbing. "It's all right, little one! You can come out. It's just me."
The sobbing stops, a choked reply comes shaking, "ArE yoU here TO KiLl mE?"
Poor thing; must be scared all to hell. He sheathes his sword, holding his hands out to the brush. "No one's here to hurt you. See? Just a friendly halfling. Let's get you out of here and home safely." He flashes a warm smile.
"What is it, Sergeant?" A call resounds behind him from the outpost.
He turns. "Just a child. Don't worry, I'll get them..." A stench fills his nostrils. Pungent and rotting, like the bile that spills forth from a rancid stomach. The sergeant's heart drops as his hand grabs the hilt of his saber, a low rumbling chuckle vibrating the tall marsh grass surrounding him.
Powerful, rotting jaws clamp onto his leg. They rend his plated greaves to ribbons and he cries out in pain. He is yanked backwards, his saber flying from his fingers, and his body disappears into the brush. His screams of pain are echoed by the frenetic laughter of hyenas, and the war party crests the hill, charging the town.
Children of Yeenoghu
The first of these creatures came from the hordes of hyenas spilling into the material world during Yeenoghu's rampages. Some of the beasts that feasted on the corpses of the fallen underwent different transformations than the traditional gnolls. Of those twisted amalgamations, Leucrotta were the most numerous.
Clever and cruel, a Leucrotta loves to deceive, torture, and kill. Despite there lupine appearance, these are not pets. In fact, Leucrottas tend to be smarter and more controlled than the gnolls that often surround them. The gnolls are entertained by a Leucrotta's ability to mimic the sounds of a suffering victim, or by its ability to "play with their food," prolonging suffering as long as possible. With such deceptive and terrible intelligence, a Leucrotta can hold an elevated position within a tribe, but rarely leads one. However, a gnoll chieftain might be seen riding one into battle. But this is not a noble steed; this is a tactical advisor - an influencer to draw the most out of a kill. Beware the fleet of gnolls that ride the dreaded Leucrottas - for they will do much worse than kill you.
The Leucrotta is a stinky boi.
Its horrible body of transformed hyena and deer oozes a toxic stench that pollutes and desecrates anywhere it lairs. Its breath is worse. Dripping from its maw, fluid corrupted with rot and digestive juices kills the plant life around it. In place of fangs, it has bony ridges harder than steel that can crush bones and open up a paladin like a soup can.
The stench alone should probably ward off any prey before they get too close, but the Leucrotta has a few advantages on their side. Due to their amalgamation, their tracks are indistinguishable from deer and other fauna. Also, and more alarming, they possess a mimicry ability that they use to duplicate the call and vocal expressions of just about anything they've heard. A crying child, a wounded bird, a missing ally; they'll use anything from their massive library to lure in potential prey and strike while they are confused.
By The Numbers
The attribute suite of this critter compliments the physical well, with a +2-4 in Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution. Unlike other dread doggos we've come across, this one's pretty smart and perceptive, but don't count on it for any Charisma checks. AC and HP are what you'd expect for something with natural armor, but just because most strikers can hit it, don't rush in half-cocked.
With its connections to Yeenoghu, this creature utilizes ferocity and tactics shared by its gnoll cousins, like their Rampage feature - where if they drop a creature, they can move and attack again. Also, a Leucrotta has multiattack, one of those attacks being with its hooves. Couple this with a special feature that allows it to Disengage as a Bonus Action after a hoof attack, and you've got a mobile (50 speed!) threat. And if this thing gets lucky on its bite, watch out - a critical hit from a Leucrotta rolls the damage three times, instead of twice. If you're using doubling rules, they triple their critical hits. OUCH.
Leucrotta In The Ionian Planes
A Leucrotta is a creature of cruelty and killing, but one that enjoys the sport of it all more than its gnoll brothers and sisters. This even minute level of control lends to each greater opportunities for planning, tactics, and learning. I imagine behind the most successful chieftains sits a Leucrotta, bending agendas, granting advice, and guiding the power like a terrible surgeon. Their intellect, though stronger than most of their counterparts, is outmatched by many others, so garnering a pack instead of soldiers is where their above-average wisdom shines. However, at least in Io, packs blessed with a Leucrotta find great value in them, but can only seem to have one at a time. This is less the gnolls's predicament and more the pride of a Leucrotta, for once it has tasted power, it has little want or use for a rival. And if another were adopted into a pack, it is only a matter of time before one ends up dead at the bottom of a ravine.
And that does it for December, and 2020! Up next? Not sure. The polls haven't closed yet.
Celestials and Fiends are extensive. We'll see who wins next week. Happy New Year, friends.
Help support this blog and vote on its Monster Of The Week, every month, every week, by heading over to my Patreon.
It is a dog. No, a hound. Tufts of layered, dense, matted purple fur rolls over wide shoulders and long, hunched neck. A whimpering mule shudders up from the body as I approach. SNAP. My boot crunches the twig and a wince. The muling stops and I watch those shoulders slope forward, the head turning my way...and a pit forms in my stomach. A humanoid, twisted face with burning red eyes stares back at me, jaw hanging open. A mix of flat and sharpened teeth jut out from open mouth, and the moaning returns, rising to a howl. I try to draw my sword, but my body can only shake as I watch the hound rise and float a foot off the ground. Even as it wales, its head tilts to the side curiously. Then it flies toward me.
Gifts Of The Dark Fey
If one impresses members of the Old Guard of Fey, they might be gifted with a Yeth Hound. Such a gift is high praise, as the Yeth is a companion for life, connected telepathically to their master and charged with their protection at all costs.
But these hounds reflect their original creators, and are by no means good creatures. Originally personified by a headless, bloodied hound in some cultures, the origin of a Yeth is one rooted in sorrow, always reflected in their strange, baleful howl. To hear the howl is a warning, but to see its source often spells doom.
According to Volo's Guide, these creatures are large hounds with flat, humanoid faces and features, and though it looks like they may bound quickly, they often HOVER creepily overhead. It is this unnatural mobility that makes them deadly sentries for their masters.
By The Numbers
In terms of raw defenses and hit points, the Yeth Hound isn't that intimidating, but make sure you're packing something silver. Their physical stats (Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution) are noticeably high, but they're dumb as a post most of the time.
Where they become truly dangerous is in their unnatural, creepy mobility and their dreaded "Baleful Baying" howl ability. The thing's got a 300 foot range, so make sure your Wisdom is decent before engaging with one. If you happen to be one of the unlucky low rollers against the howl, that frightened condition does a lot more for the Yeth than it does for you, stacking on extra psychic damage for its scared victims. And I can't blame them; the image of this thing bearing down on you is NOT pleasant.
As an aside, I was actually very intrigued to write about this thing.
There is something wholly unnerving about these large Fey doggos with humanoid faces, who creepily hover overhead and paralyze prey with their baleful howl. It's just such an unsettling image. Add on to this the fact that as long as it's on the same plane as its master, it can ALWAYS contact it telepathically. Woof, buddy.
The Yeth In Io
Sentries Of The Deep Night
As servants gifted by old Fey, a Yeth Hound always has a home in the Feywild. Denizens and visitors alike who gain favor in the Verdant Court may find themselves with a Large, loyal, and evil companion that can't be charmed or frightened away.
Just, imagine for a moment, waking up with this thing sitting in your living room. Just. THERE. Totally silent. And then its red eyes slowly turn your way, like some living furred statue and a voice enters your mind like Dug from Up. "I sat in your living room in the dark because I love you. And now I'll love you FOREVER." The face doesn't change the entire time. Lol.
But not just any Fey can gift you a Yeth. They must be made first, and only one of the four Courts knows how. Skilled in curses and the binding of souls, the Ladies Of Winter, under the instruction of King Oberon himself, have much practice in plucking the unfortunate mortals of deals gone wrong and pipers unpaid, and supplanting their essence into a new form - one to serve the Deep Night and the citizens of Air and Darkness.
If a singular entity can be gifted one Yeth for an impression, imagine the army Winter commands. Hundreds of baleful, wailing sentries silently drifting across the night skies; keeping watch and wary over the fane kingdoms.
Watch for the red eyes and motionless face, and keep your distance, lest the mournful cries of a soul forever trapped in servitude reaches your ears...and rends your mind asunder.
Sleep well, travelers.
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In the time immemorial, long before the mortals killed them, the masters of the goblin races beseeched the General of Gehenna for aid. The General provided yugoloth souls to serve the goblinoid triumvirate in the Infinite Battlefields of Acheron. Yet when the time came to honor the debt, the goblin gods reneged on the deal.
The powerful entities that ruled Gehenna marked the goblinoid races for slaughter, and, as an act of vengeance, created the scourge of their nightmares...
A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing
In 5th Edition, a Barghest is born from goblin parents just like any other offspring. But this entity harbors a deadly and dreadful secret. Though it emerges in a goblin's body, it will learn quickly how to assume its true form: that of a large, fearsome, and fiendish canine. In some cultures and lore, the difference is clear: a Barghest can be a yellow-skinned goblin of bigger, more muscular frame, and is marked by the fearsome yellow glow that spills into their eyes when they're excited. In other cultures, the Barghest looks like any other of its sheep, and will do its best to hide its true nature, at least in the beginning.
A Barghest's purpose is to devour the goblinoid souls of creatures it kills, the more important or renowned the better. This means that they are discerning with whom they "honor" in consumption, and there's a limited number of seats in their mission. You see, when Maglubiyet, and others like them, broke in total 17 oaths to the General, so it is decreed that one soul be consumed for every broken oath. After this, the Barghest may return to Gehenna and reap the spoils of its completed mission. Fail, and be torn asunder for its insolence.
For this one might think that a Barghest discovered by its goblinoid brethren would be killed in fear, but it is often the exact opposite. Goblins and others of their ilk will fawn over and shower the discovered Barghest with praise, servitude, and diminutive allegiance, constantly attempting to show that they are equal parts useful to its cause AND lowly enough to be undeserving of consumption. It is this strange dance that will drive those under a Barghest's leadership to commit great deeds in their name, only to be cut down and eaten for such renown.
Rooted In Folklore
As with many of our modern edition's monsters, the classical images and inspiration we draw from have a long history of deep folklore and iteration. The Barghest is no stranger to this, summoning up dark tales across multiple peoples and regions.
According to old North English folklore, the Barghest was a mythical, monstrous black dog with huge claws and sharp teeth. This original picture holds true across time, if not for a few creative liberties and adjustments, but the etymology of the word is of note. Barghest, or Barguest, roughly translates to "bear" and "ghost" in the old tongue. Couple this with further alternative spellings and we get my favorite version, the Bahr-geist, bringing the rough translation swinging more toward "spirit of the funeral pyre."
This creature has always been connected to the consequences of death, much more than a simple ghost story. A creature of intense malice and hatred, its purpose is derived through perceived destruction of its own community, at least at first, but ends in realms of power. What began as a warning of the things that go bump in the night grew into tales of shapeshifters and long-lived fiends, doppelgängers and howling at the moon, and a lupine strength coupled with a sentient intellect, and a burning, hateful purpose.
By The Numbers
A Barghest is one tough cookie. Already resistant to most elemental damage and non-magical weapon damage, this thing boasts an AC of at least 17, and have no stat with a negative modifier. Trained in Deception, Stealth, Intimidation, and Perception, they are keen to their surroundings and good liars. Couple that with superior tracking abilities and innate charming spells at their disposal, and you've got a tricky (and STRONG) not-goblin on your hands.
Did I mention it has Blindsight and Telepathy out to 60 feet? Dude.
Despite its fiendish classification, the Barghest has a difficult relationship with fire, but not for the reasons you think. It's resistant to the stuff, which tracks, but any mass of it larger than the Barghest's body acts as a tearing of the veil between this plane and Gehenna, and poor thing can be banished there just by being in close proximity. Sure, you think, they can just bamf back, right? Unfortunately, no, as a Barghest is more likely to be caught, tortured, and killed for its failure to collect its souls for the General. Tough luck, doggo.
The Barghest In The Ionian Shadowfell
Twisted By Perpetual Darkness
The Ionian Shadowfell is one of dark purpose. Creatures born here do not hold sway in D&D's legacy of a sorrow-filled landscape. No, the creatures that spawn in this place are fueled by furious purpose and twisted by the Perpetual Night.
The Barghest is a rarity among such denizens, but their existence, especially following the engineering colonization before the turn of Io Shar, is not unheard of. Goblinoid mariners and pirates became more common beyond the Evernight, far in the reaches of Gressil's Helm.
Goblins and Hobgoblins born on the dark sea can sometimes bear the Mark of Gehenna, a sigil of deep crimson in the small of the back. Creatures bearing the Mark are both cursed and blessed with extreme bloodlust and wicked strength. At a coming of age, often in battle, the Mark can manifest, turning the skin of a "marked" jet black, and its true form will reveal itself.
Barghests take many forms in the Shadowfell, but all are lupine. Some appear like broken glass, the shards a refraction of their vision. Others are amorphous clouds with teeth. Many are hounds with sharpened, boney spurs and horns. And all are very, very dangerous.
Hounds Of The Chainbreaker
It is the Barghest's greatest will and purpose to complete its mission and return to the Generals of Gehenna. A throne awaits them in The Bleak Eternity.
Yet, this mission could take months, years, decades. In this time, a creature could gain power, prestige, and ownership. Perhaps they gain even more fulfillment than what awaits them in the worlds beyond. Which begs the question: what happens when a Barghest completes their mission...and does not wish to return?
Is it power or retribution that awaits them? To scorn their masters and their promise, and break the chains of their birthright. Or are they the husks of great warriors before, the lost soldiers of Gehenna hopelessly clinging to life and sanity, even as their masters siphon away what's left?
Unfortunately, the lore ends here. For no one seeks the Hounds of the Chainbreaker. The only thing that persists is a tiny warning scrawled in the stained journal of a deckhand, lone survivor of The Kretch Jumper and their ill-fated voyage.
"And to the poor souls that tempt venture beyond the ruins of Evynlee's Veil and seek the Moaning Gray through the Formless Cante, keep your eyes pinned to the horizon and seek not the masked hound that watches you from the peaks...for it covets all that meet its third eye."
It is worth noting that this message is written as its last entry, and the handwriting does not match previous entries.
More Of This Please
Unfortunately, in my experience so far, this critter is drastically underutilized. Their story is one of grand deception, superior command, and a cosmological mission with possible sweeping consequences. Imagine a villain poised as general of a goblin army, especially considering the complex relationship with his subjects. Imagine a hero, biting the line between the best picks of the worst people to destroy for his dark master.
There's a lot of depth here, and I can't wait for my players to begin to scrape the surface.
Sleep tight, doggo.
Source: The Barghest can be found in Volo's Guide To Monsters, published by Wizards of the Coast for use in 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons; also, TONS of actual British folklore.
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Zipping through the thicket and brim, little Zym left the lumbering oaf far behind. Skating along the water's edge, he skips easily along the liquid and dances up the lily to perch in the phosphorus purple sky. Miles away, his eyes twitch down to the spoils of his mischief: a locket, large in his hands. It is brass, with a gold chain, and metal clasp. Zym clicks it open to reveal a beautiful portrait of an elven maiden - a noble perhaps. With a proud grin, Zym snaps the locket shut, tying it onto his back and, with a bolt and a blur, disappears into the Underwood...
At A Glance
In 5th Edition, a Quickling is a tiny, mischievous fey of lightning speed. They think and act quickly, moving faster than the untrained eye can track, and most creatures see them as mere blurs.
To a Quickling, however, the outside world is painfully slow. They see it all in transfixed time, not unlike our recent renditions of Quicksilver on the big screen. This boring world with a lack of motion and meaning creates a creature of jittery purpose and mobility. If a Quickling is ever "at rest", it would be found pacing, and not for long.
They are the plight of the of those that wander the strange forests of the Fey, tying shoelaces, stealing coin purses, tricks of artful malice; and though they sometimes blur their chaotic intentions and sew violent discord, they never seek to murder...at least not directly.
An Insult Too Many
Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness, is not to be left waiting. To do so is to incur the wrath of one of the oldest and most powerful Archfey in existence. And yet, this exact insult is the crux of a Quickling's lineage.
Once a race of egotistical, lazy, and narcissistic Fey, these gluttonous creatures ignored and delayed a summons one too many from their great Queen. So, as an Archfey is want to do, she cursed them.
Their tall frames were shrunk to tiny sprites. Their slow minds quickened to an alarming, maddening speed. These Fey, under their new life, would never be late again, the insolence of their hubris burned into the fibers of their being.
By The Numbers
These are tiny, fast, hyper dextrous creatures with itty-bitty hit points and decent AC. They won't last long in a fight, though, at least not one on one. But just as an army of squirrels is still an army, 1d4+6 (Dexterity of at least 22!?) adds up right quick, and with their evasive, blurred movement, if ever your adventures happen upon a batch of them, they'll need a better strategy than "stab it until it dies."
Quicklings in the Ionian Feywild
Unlike other entries, the Quickling's Faerunian lore fits perfectly already into the core concepts and forces that rule my Feywild and its regions. The only adjustment here may be in the relationship of the Quickling's curse.
While I am certain that some Quicklings worship their Queen openly, I would assume that many harbor a great ill will toward the Queen, and a great fear to never act on it. I, being a cruel world-builder, have woven a long, manipulated memory into the Quickling that spins the Queen's actions as an act of salvation.
The lazy Fey would certainly have perished without her "blessing," so they worship and serve her without question. In fact, the most zealous and devout Quicklings will create "orders" and guilds in direct service to the Winter Court so as to gain the Queen's favor. Such favor achieved...is rare, and if ever it happens, THAT Quickling may actually last in a one-on-one fight.
So if a chill breeze follows a Quickling, exercise caution if you mean to chase it into the Deep Wood.
See you in the forest.
Source: Quicklings and their official 5th Edition attributes can be found in Volo's Guide To Monsters, published by Wizards of the Coast.
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One of the dimensions we can explore in Dungeons and Dragons is identity, and who we choose to be when we assume the mantle of a character in a fantasy world. We get to choose how our characters behave, talk, and fight, and determine how much of our real world persona expresses itself through the course of gameplay. Sometimes our characters are goofy parodies of some storytelling archetype, and sometimes our characters are dramatic emotional portraits of our own personal growth and development. Arguably, the most impactful way a player can contribute to the narrative at the table is through their character’s mechanics, which a player chooses and customizes as their character levels up. Even creative solutions and descriptions are usually resolved through some kind of game mechanic. For example, haggling with a merchant, no matter the description, will probably require some kind of Charisma check, or be circumvented through a clever use of a spell or feature. All three of these solutions are mechanical in nature, and handled by 5e’s system.
A player usually has the ability to customize their character’s mechanical identity through three major choices: race, class, and background. The first choice, race, accounts for a character’s biology and cultural heritage (whether they subscribe to it or not). A character’s class determines the character’s main features and choices, summarized in the Player’s Handbook as “Class is the primary definition of what your character can do”. Background is the last choice, and it provides small mechanical benefits that are tied to who your character was before the start of the story.
Of course, a player can also customize their character’s appearance, personality, accent, and mannerisms, but there are (for the most part) no real restrictions in these categories. However, although these character elements have little restrictions, they can also have little impact over how the story unfolds beyond aesthetic. For example, even if you describe your character as being attractive, that doesn’t affect their ability to persuade others. That game interaction is handled by their Persuasion bonus, a game mechanic. So while we as players are free to describe our characters aesthetic, the meaningfulness to how they contribute to a narrative is left to the game mechanics, and it’s that contribution that also contributes to a character’s identity.
However, despite having control over their character’s personality, race, class, and background, there is one category of identity-defining mechanics that players tend not to have control over: their equipment progression. Beyond starting equipment, players are often subject to the whim of their DM of when they’re given magic items, what items they’re given, and how many they’re allowed to acquire. While the Dungeon Master’s Guide presents guidelines on this, oftentimes a DM defaults to a treasure table, which may or may not yield treasure that can be used by the party. Even moreso, magic items of equivalent rarity don’t seem as balanced as other objects in the game state, such as same-level class features and same-level spells, so the likelihood of a DM giving an item of inappropriate power (either too much or too little) is greater.
Now, there are a great deal many players that prefer this approach. There’s an excitement to the mystery of receiving random items that can yield spontaneous stories, and I’m not suggesting to discount that option if that’s what your table prefers. In fact, oftentimes finding an unconventional magic item can become as much a part of a character’s identity as their race, class, and background. So, if a random magic item might yield that result, could giving my players the option of choosing their equipment allow them to become more intentioned in defining their character’s identity? What becomes possible if their equipment levelled up with them, just like their class features, and what if they could choose how their character’s identity is expressed by their equipment? What would their choices reveal about their characters’ values as well as the players’ values? And, if I’m the one responsible for giving these choices, how can I create a more satisfying approach like class levels where every character is on an even playing field, and martial characters are just as interesting and powerful as casting characters?
Before we get too far down this rabbit hole, I want to give credit where it's due. This design philosophy of having equipment that can level up is not new. One of the most brilliant examples of a balanced, customizable equipment system is the one seen in Final Fantasy VII Remake. Whereas the original FFVII had different equipment options that grew stronger as the game progressed, Remake did something truly brilliant. When a new weapon became available, it was generally as powerful as your starting gear, but offered new options that may be more appropriate to different situations. In addition, every piece of equipment could be upgraded, from the amount of damage and protection it offered to granting your character new options in combat. This was the kind of hands-on upgrading I wanted to bring to D&D, and so far, it’s worked really well. But why?
Game Structure Matters
In the two sections following this one, I’ll detail the two systems I use to allow players to customize their equipment. While I do believe they’ve so far been pretty successful, I attribute a great deal of that success to the structure of the games I run them in. For example, each adventure is conducted like a one-shot, in that there’s a clear beginning, middle, and end to each story, even if there are open loops that can serve as future plot hooks. All players are at a set level, and each one has a set number of upgrades and spell gems they’re allowed to build into their character. Between sessions, players are welcome to rebuild their characters (as long as they keep in contact with me), which gives a certain freedom to fine-tuning the character they want to play. Most of the time, any adjustments are minor, like swapping out a spell or two or swapping out a feat for an ASI. As would be expected, part of this rebuilding rule is that players are also allowed to rebuild or swap out their equipment. Whether my players are motivated by storytelling or mechanical performance, this freedom let’s them experiment with different options without ever feeling stuck with a certain character, and play is always a “get to” rather than a “have to”. Ultimately, my point here is that if you use these systems and don’t allow your players to freely rebuild, it may impact their enjoyment of the system. If you let some of your players rebuild or use these systems and not others, the same warning applies.
Right now, each of my players knows that for their next session, their characters are at 6th level, and they can upgrade their equipment with 3 upgrades (which can all be to the same weapon, spread to three pieces of different equipment, or any combination), and they have two spell gems they can use to make their equipment magical. There are some options that are designed to work better for martial characters, and some that are designed to work better with casters, although characters aren’t limited by anything other than their proficiencies. Everyone has the same number of choices, and so the onus is on each individual player to make the most of the options available to them.
Okay, so now that’s out of the way. Truly, without further ado...Upgrades and Spell Gems!
Upgrading Equipment is a system that allows players to customize the function of their equipment without making it magical. It covers everything from statistical benefits, material composition, and properties. I have a prepared list of available upgrades for my players to choose from based on their power level, although if my players have a creative idea for an upgrade, they’re always free to ask me if I can write rules for what they have in mind.
The first kind of upgrade is statistical improvement, which ends up being the most sparse. Players can choose to upgrade a weapon’s attack bonus or damage bonus per upgrade, and depending on their tier of play, they have limits to the total bonus they can unlock per piece of equipment. For example, a fighter with a pike can use two upgrades to give that pike a +1 bonus to attack rolls and damage rolls, or they can choose to spread those upgrades out over a few different weapons. Each player only has a limited number of upgrades, so they have to carefully consider how they spread them out and sometimes raw statistical power isn’t as interesting or as desirable as some of the other options.
Another option is that players can use one of their upgrades for a piece of equipment made of an exotic material. In my latest game, because I have so many creatures with a vulnerability to silvered weapons, a few of my players have opted to forgo a steady statistical bump (like to attack or damage rolls) for a silvered weapon, which deals double damage to many of the monsters in the world. However, silvered weapons also break more easily, meaning that they have to be careful when and how they’re used. There’s potentially a greater reward for using the weapon, but also a greater risk.
To me, the most interesting upgrades are properties, some of which are listed in the standard equipment tables for Fifth Edition. An example is the finesse property, given to some melee weapons to indicate that a character wielding the weapon can use Dexterity instead of Strength for attack and damage rolls. Using an upgrade for a property allows a player to customize the function of their weapons in relation to their class features, so a Monk/Rogue multiclass can customize their longsword to count as both a monk and finesse weapon. In addition to some of the standard properties, I’ve also included other custom properties, like being able to attack a grappling hook to your character’s armor, or creating a hidden compartment to hide items and spell gems.
In addition, because they can rebuild session to session, as the DM I’m free to change the environment’s impact on these decisions as well. For example, in one of my latest games, I had my players traverse a desert. One of the ways they could avoid having to make a saving throw against exhaustion was to take the breathable upgrade to their armor, which also meant they had one less combat option on hand in case they needed to fight. Or, they could’ve taken a spell gem that would’ve prevented them from having a magical option. By adding elements of risk and reward to the character creation process, the game became an engaging exercise before it even began.
And to anyone that may criticize this kind of system because it begs to be optimized, I have this to say. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the diverse options my players have selected in building their characters, and it's led to a delightfully unpredictable experience. For example, one of my players is playing an orc fighter that focuses on two-handed weapons, while another is a half-orc barbarian that uses a greataxe. While the two may sound similar on paper, the role equipment plays drastically changes how they each approach combat.
Fennik, the fighter, switches around weapons based on terrain and enemy, using a silvered greatsword when fighting against a monster weak to silver while opting for a glaive with a boosted critical chance when fighting standard opponents. His weapon selection is as much a part of his identity in combat as his fighter features, and because he got to select his equipment’s power level, it showcased the value of a fighter when compared to other martial classes.
Aza, the barbarian, plays much more like you’d expect a barbarian to. She picks the weapon with the biggest damage die, rages, and swings. Sometimes she uses reckless attacks, but mostly she just commits her weapon to hitting as hard as it can. This is also reflected in her spell gem selection. While Fennik has tried a few different magical effects that trade lower damage for inflicting conditions, Aza uses a spell gem that deals the most possible damage.
In another game without this dimension, I could see the characters operating mostly the same. Both are tanky damage dealers, with one maybe having a greater reach than the other and the other being a bit more survivable. It would be a difference in statistics, not choices. With this dimension added, the characters are noticeably distinct, and each uniquely contributes to the party’s dynamic in and out of combat.
The other dimension of equipment progression is the role magic plays in 5e’s system. One of my qualms with 5e’s magic item design has nothing to do with the magic items themselves, but more with how other objects in the game’s system treats them. For example, certain hazards can make a metal item rust, unless it’s magical. If it’s magical, it’s beyond harm. Some creatures are resistant to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage...as long as it’s not magical. As soon as it’s magical, the damage goes through unimpeded. What this does is force martial characters to prioritize their magic weapons, because all of their other choices are less useful and risk being damaged. In addition, the use of each magic weapon tends to lack choice. A +1 longsword always has its +1 bonus, and there’s no resource that’s used by utilizing its magic ability. Eventually, this leads to a static improvement to a character’s statistical performance rather than dynamic choices that engage the player behind the character.
By contrast, spell gems allow a player character to choose to expend a charge when they hit, meaning that every time a player character attuned to a spell gem hits their mark, they can choose if it’s worth accessing the magical damage the spell gem provides or not. By using a charge, a spell gem makes a mundane weapon attack magical for that attack only, and is designed to be saved to be used against creatures with a resistance to non-magical attacks. Of course, they also work against other creatures without such resistances, but that may not be where they’re best used.
In terms of weapons design, my current array of spell gems call upon the design of cantrips to deliver their extra damage. The flame spell gem really just allows a martial character to add a firebolt effect to the weapon attack they hit with, while a shock gem allows them to add a shocking grasp. This element of selecting magical damage types and additional effects makes the spell gem selection process much more engaging before the game begins, as players try to strategically coordinate with each other and their class features to deliver the most effective performance. And, while the gems have limited charges, they aren’t useless once expended. Spell gems can be recharged by casters that have access to the same damage type, and can be recharged between combats (adding even more strategy into a character’s build, which can be adjusted between sessions). And, while again, some may say this is overpowered, spell gems can be used by the DM’s creatures as well, and can even be targeted for attacks or certain spells like dispel magic.
Damage isn’t the only function of spell gems either. There are lists I included of “utility” gems, which have the function of all of your favorite magic items. From the effects of boots of the winterland to helm of telepathy, players can customize the appearance and functions of their magical equipment at their whim. And, if I as the DM found any of the magic item effects imbalanced, this is my opportunity to rebalance them.
Lastly, this also means that equipment isn’t permanently magical. Using a damaging spell gem only makes the one attack that uses the charge magical, meaning that a player with a favorite glaive or silver knife may lose that precious weapon to a rust monster or hazard. This can be pretty detrimental for gameplay purposes, but also may lead to creative moments for the players that depend on that equipment. And, after the session is over, they’ll be able to rebuild their equipment right back to where it was, so any loss isn’t permanent.
As a player, I’ve sometimes found it frustrating to have to forfeit a part of my character’s identity to my DM’s whim, which risks them misrepresenting my character and hampering my ability to contribute to the table’s narrative. Presenting a transparent, deep, balanced system like this gives your players one more thing to surprise you with, which can be the greatest feeling (and fear) a DM experiences. There have been times my players have surprised me with bonus damage or combos I hadn’t considered, and I wouldn’t trade the fun I’ve had with them for anything.
So now I want to know your thoughts. How much control do you want to give your players, and how might that impact your relationship at the table?
Study Hard, Play Hard
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, amateur bartender, and aspiring fiction author.
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