It happens every once in a while. You're moving and grooving in a campaign, joking, laughing, having a blast - then the big bad shows up and things go sideways. They're tough, but you do your best, and the dice are all over the place. Characters are dropping left and right as they pull out all the stops to win, and the rival group's preparation throws the party off-guard. Then the tides begin to turn, and realization sets in - your players are going to lose.
HOW that happens, though, and what it means, is up to everyone at the table.
Sometimes D&D can be hard on you.
There's a beautiful immersive quality to tabletop gaming that invites fun and engaging storytelling, deep role-play (even if it's silly - my favorite), and impactful combat. But for all the moments of victory, laughter, and levity...sometimes things don't go the way you thought they would. Dice rolls don't play nice, your enemies came prepared, or stuff's going on in real life that colors what's happening. Does that mean it was a bad story? Not at all. A challenging encounter once in a while (and in this case, once in a LONG while, as most of the campaign is meant to be fun and light) makes the points of levity even stronger, and how characters rise from the ashes of a "defeat" can uncover new layers of immersion and growth.
The Fears Of A DM
In my Feywild campaign, there has been a consistent air of hilarious strangeness and dark undertones, with a side salad of irreverent quips and bonkers magic. At the table, we find our sweet spot in Social Interaction and Exploring this intriguing setting, while building up a network of knowledge on the many forces vying for control of this magical realm. Our best sessions are derived with zero combat and an army of NPCs to talk to and mess with.
It's in Combat and conflict that the veils struggle, and the dark side of the setting pulls into focus.
This is a High Magic setting full of Fey and wizards and chronomancy and Queen Mab. Campfires sing to you, trapping those entranced in an endless dance of death. The grass needs compliments or it will kill you. The dreaded Theater looms in the dark forests, luring unsuspecting travelers into its immortal troupe. And the evergreen kings and queens of this realm care little for the fleeting lives of a few amusing PCs.
This means that when clashes happen, there are often elements of chaos that are hard to predict. That said, that was one of the selling points of the campaign. A "wild" version of magic and mischief that can swing some things in and out of your favor, but never too far as to push your success to pure luck. A voyeuristic Archfey that finds the actions of a PC intriguing, and grants them a mote of possibility. A character's plant affinity granting them transport across the map. Pockets of void magic that provide inverse effects of certain spells.
But in Combat, the dice can add a variability that can sometimes be less hilarious, and more tragic.
When my party is frustrated, I am frustrated. When they are sad, I am sad. When they struggle, I struggle. I am not a DM that supports adversarial gaming; it is not a "DM vs Players" mindset over here. Do I challenge them? Of course! But when they're feeling it, I'm right there with them. I WANT them to beat my big bads; I want them to win the day, so when they don't, I feel like I lost too. And I don't want them to hurt, I want them to feel energized to return. They didn't sign up for a trauma center EVERY week.
Hmm. Let me get into this a bit more so you can understand where we're coming from.
The Lead Up
The Feywild Warriors have been trekking around the Ionian Feywild for 12 levels now. We do milestones, and they tend toward less combat and more interaction. They're lovable children, when you think about it, as most of the PCs are around 17-19, one doesn't even know his age, and then we've got an old fighter into his 50s that acts like their dad (found family, you get it). We've got a Dragonborn Fighter (Terhune), a Werewolf Druid (Buddy), a Tiefling Wild Magic Sorlock (Bry) and her elemental familiar (Soot), a Tiefling Bard/Fighter (Akita), and a Human Battle Master Fighter (Taman). Because they're so dang adorable and well-intentioned, they've accumulated quite the entourage of NPCs. Alannah - a Paladin/Tempest Cleric (wife of Taman); Essian - a half-elven War Mage, Alannah's ward; Vali - a human Rogue and now girlfriend to Akita (she went to the Feywild to find Akita, so that's love); Broty - a young Tanarukk (who has imprinted on the two tieflings and views them as little sisters)...poor guy has an intelligence of 5.
ALSO, along the way, they have happened upon another adventuring party led by a character they presumed killed in their first adventure. A bridge guard who survived The Massacre Of Sentry at the hands of a Black Knight and joined up with another party to help him seek righteous vengeance. His name is Jenkins Carpenter, or Jink for short, and he is avenging the death of his brother, Leroy Carpenter (yes, I am that guy). Jenkins is joined by Nessa, a High Elf Ranger/Rogue, Remy the Lizardfolk Barbarian, and Sloan the Dwarven something (seriously, I don't think he knows what class he is).
This literal army of deadly kittens have built powerful bonds between each other as they navigate the dangerous wilds of the Fey realm, each strengthening and redefining the odd family dynamic of those that face threat together. All the while, dark forces move into position. The Winter Court has occupied the City Of Astrazalian - a neutral ground between the Fey Courts - and is using it as a military position (that's not okay); an orcish army led by a tiefling warlord marches on the West; a gnoll army marches Northwest (and threatens to clash); the stars (spirits of guidance in the Fey Realm) are falling from the sky and being collected by the Whispering Rock guild and their seemingly corrupted leader, Montblanc (doesn't help that Terhune, Taman, Alannah, and Essian were all once members of this guild, whoopsie)... And all of this seems orchestrated by a small group of individuals that call themselves The Four Gears.
The party has had fleeting encounters with each of them.
Hush, the Black Knight/Silencekeeper - the first real threat the party saw in their inciting incident on a bridge. Simple stuff; they all met, hung out, antics ensued, they went to bed. Woke up and the bridge town was burning down, and this jerk was coming through killing folks. They tried to distract them, but the bridge collapsed, and now the Black Knight haunts their nightmares as they catch drifting news of their exploits.
Albrecht, the Kingslayer - a cleric of multiple gods (it seems), the party has mostly witnessed the aftermath of Albrecht's handiwork. The guy has a huge distaste for small fey, burning spryte villages and darkling conclaves to the ground. In a way, he's been knocking out lesser leaders to pin focus on larger forces. He is surgical and pragmatic, but his true intentions are unclear.
Eon, the Kingmaker - a silver-tongued lavender tiefling wizard of deep knowledge and cunning, Eon has aided the party in navigating the gnoll army early in the campaign, but he has only become more creepy as time goes on. He took a liking to his fellow tieflings, but holds no love for other races. Seeing the growing power in Bry and a possible kinship, he has been invasive in contacting her, much to the worry of his fellows, even going so far as to bind himself to a promise not to kill her companions. A promise that may spell his undoing, but it is entirely possible that he is playing a different kind of game.
Arameis Salfurion, the Whisper - an aasimar of unknown origin, this entity is known only through word of mouth and fleeting visions before death. Most recent word has it that he serves as a consultant to Montblanc and his guild, and may be behind the collection of Fallen Stars. He has been seen as an after-image of a Contingency spell woven into the symbol of the Whispering Rock Guild - set to turn people to dust if they broach certain topics of discussion. Luckily, Alannah and Essian's abjurative abilities tipped them off before it was too late, and Taman and Terhune had already forcibly resigned.
In the Ionian Feywild, there are forces that serve as great equalizers. None are more powerful or resolute than the Erlking and his Wild Hunt. He is appointed by the Stars, so his legend is known among the denizens of the Fey far and wide. He holds no Court of his own, though many claim to be of it. In truth, he calls the honored dead to his banners - ancient Eladrin warriors culled by his Hunt in days long past and sworn into servitude to wash the realm of dangerous chaos. He and his Hunt are the last bastion of defense and the grand hammer that allows the Fey Courts to sit on their thrones and raise their goblets in indifference. In other words, if crap gets real, the Erlking will take care of it.
Thing is, the stars are falling and war is brewing, and no horns of the Hunt are blaring. The Fey Lords and Ladies are only mildly concerned, as is their way, but the lesser fey - like the extricated Autumn Court, or the Darkling clans - know that something is wrong, and that they'll be hit by the brunt of it long before Summer feels a tickle.
Though they be young, the party has heroes in it, and those that lack heroics still garner a sense of justice. There is wrong happening around them, and though they often move on to their next adventure, the wave is catching up to them - threatening to drown. They conclude that they have two real choices: 1) Get someone to plane shift them to the Material Plane (where most of them are from), cozy up at Taman's house with his wife, get adopted, and wait till this all blows over; or 2) locate the Erlking and his crown, so evil can be stopped.
Prepared for both outcomes, I did not nudge a thing, but the group voted - option 2 was the way.
So they ventured to the savage dark forests of The Fading City, seeking an audience with its undead Fey Ranger King...Lord Calenon Thrayn. Turns out, two armies also threaten to converge upon the city, so the party must sneak past in order to get inside first. Which, they just barely do so, as orcs begin to pour into the city hot on their heels. Luckily, the city has a defense mechanism: the Fog Of Purity. Creatures that pass into this Fog undergo strange, random trials that measure a piece of their soul - some are straight forward, some are outright weird, and in clear Feywild fashion, it's pretty random. Long story short, a few of the smarter captains emerge from the Fog deep into the dark forest that permeates the city...knee deep in dinosaurs and gigantic beasts. Our heroes, however, emerge before a guide - a little Fey kitty - that leads them to Thrayn.
Much discussion later, we discover that the Erlking's Crown is hidden in the Material Plane. As part of Shinealestra's lore, the city will phase to the Material Plane every night at midnight, its forest of nightmare creatures becoming a prized hunting ground for only the bravest of hunters. It returns to the Fey Realm at first light, at dawn. The castle flips, our resident human Taman and his wife rejoice at seeing a normal sky and normal grass, and the army of squirrels is led by a pack of sentient mushrooms with messenger bags to their next destination.
After a clutch phantasmal force on a nasty T-Rex, the original party plus a Jenkins makes it through just before the cave mouth closes, leaving their allies to fight the dino. Trusting each other, they have a chat with an Elder Being, get a very needed Long Rest in a time bubble, and push their way into a teleportation chamber. The werewolf, rocking his child-like intelligence, bounds through the portal before the others can stop him. He is seemingly atomized (think Dr. Manhattan, you weirdos), and while the players at the table contemplate if I just killed a character, Bry notes that the transportation runes have been tampered with. Conclusion - they still work, they just don't go to the right place. Four fragmented sendings and a lot of swearing later, Buddy returns, Bry fixes the portal, and our Taman has the brilliant idea to scan the area with a See Invisibility item. Good thing, too, as Eon's voice creeps into our Sorcerer's head, and they watch him drop into the fixed portal, before they all jump in after him.
They feather fall down into ruins; gravestones and sarcophagi overgrown with moss and fallen trees. Bry's nature affinity clears the path to a throne, a skeletal guardian, and a crown...before urging everyone to look up. Eon, silhouetted by a dark sky, floats above them. "Thank you for showing us the way..." He summons Minute Meteors...and detonates the Delayed Blast Fireball under their feet.
Why This Was Tricky
I crafted this particular encounter without a clear idea of how it was going to end. Not that I've ever shunted PCs into certain positions to reach a specific outcome, but sometimes you can foresee the three basic endings in a battle. Get to know a party well enough, and you get a pretty good idea how most things are going to play out. But this time, there were certain variables that made things tricky.
1) THE DICE WERE BEING JERKS - I award inspiration, give advantage where I can, and overall support my players given the wacky setting we all agreed to...it just wasn't helping! Saving throws getting botched, attack rolls whiffing, amazing ideas with simple checks falling flat. On both sides! And, you know, maybe that's a good story, too. This is a group that buys into that variability; I like to think we're charging up for those legendary three Nat 20's in a row moment. (it's happened, let's let it happen again).
2) THESE ENEMIES HAD TIME - They have been plotting, preparing, and hiding. I can't spoil a lot here, but their abilities are based on rules, magic items, and preparation. They are a counter-party, and this is their moment. They had a plan. Eon shows first and distracts while Hush goes for the crown, and the third waits in the wings for the most opportune moment. They are smart - flawed, but we'll get to that - and deadly.
3) THEY'RE PUTTING IT ALL ON THE TABLE - This being such a clutch moment for The Four Gears party, they're going to burn a bunch of resources to achieve their goal, making them LOOK very powerful for a limited time. IF our heroes can hold out against that onslaught, that's another chance in the PCs' favor.
4) MANY WAYS TO "WIN" - with an Ancient Artifact in play, there are a plethora of ways this could go down. We just finished a segment where at least two of our PCs saw visions of themselves wearing the crown, so we know it's possible. Holding the crown has one effect (it can't be stowed in a container, btw), while WEARING it has another. On top of this, despite Eon's destructive forces, his connection with the party can be exploited; whether that flips him to the other side or pisses off his companions enough to cut him loose, that's another win in the PCs's direction - he DID make a blood pact not to kill them. Throw in our Amplified Wild Magic (Feywild custom), a reluctant warlock pact, burgeoning tiefling rage powers, our Taman's random ability to nullify certain magical effects (I have to roll for it - dice were jerks, see above), and a custom druidic circle all about ripping and tearing, and there's a surfeit of possibility here.
How It Played Out
This was tough challenge against prepared, patient enemies. And for a PC party that has done pretty well flying by the seat of their pants into most encounters, I foresaw that this could be a tougher go this time around.
After eating the explosion, the party scatters while Eon attempts to place Bry into stasis - keen to remove her safely from the fight. Taman, in a cool reaction that I will allow, pushes Bry out of the way, and becomes inert for a round instead! Meanwhile, the perception-level-stupid-high Buddy notices that someone invisible might be making their way to the crown.
Akita decides on her own to polymorph into a super fast, super squishy bird and bum rush the crown. An invisible Hush cuts her out of the form as she flies by, but Akita maintains her momentum to land on the throne, hands already on the crown. With Jenkins and Buddy sprinting to help (the natural 2 on Jenkins's acrobatics did not help), Akita weighs her life choices as the skeleton wriggles to life and begins to wrestle with the tiefling to keep the crown.
Hush, now visible, puts on full display the completely legal and totally unfair mechanics of the Echo Knight and proceeds to tank a clutch polymorph (on an Echo), phase from one Echo to another, and one-shot our resident NPC Jenkins (who's just trying to avenge his brother, my guy, come on now!) with a Nat 20 great sword + sneak attack. With Jenkins making death saves in front of Buddy, Hush cleans her blade and silently squares off against our druid.
On the other side of the battlefield, Bry begins to show just how much she's grown as a mage as she not only deflects blows from Eon, but shatters his wards. The surges of Amplified Wild Magic elevate stones around her, and continue to build up inside her, threatening a cataclysmic burst. Terhune hides, and does his best to stay hidden while taking sniper shots at Eon. Both, due to obstructions, are unaware of Buddy and Jenkins's battle, nor are they fully aware of Akita's predicament.
Akita wrestles the crown, and the skeleton guarding it, off the throne. She does so with such primal force that the throne, its pedestal, and the plinth of stone it rests on, slide free in a shower of stone and dust. In the debris, a focused Akita pulls the crown free, its desiccated husk filling with new florid life and personality akin to her own. And crawling from the opened tomb under the throne, are the honored skeleton guard of the Erlking, watching their potential queen eagerly.
Whether by fear or force, Bry pushes Eon further into the ruin, and he doubles over in pain in the air; the arcane agreement he made threatens to be broken, so he sends healing words to Jenkins as Buddy rushes to help Akita (and more skeletons rise around her). Hush shifts her Echo closer to a hidden Terhune, and finally Taman has someone to fight.
Without structuring the rest of this in a play-by-play, a few things happen in quick succession that turn this whole thing sideways:
1) Bry's Wild Magic begins to manifest in telekinetic ways, flinging terrain across the map (one of which knocking Hush prone, to Taman's delight).
2) Hush shows her hand by raging, and a real threat comes into play, one that hits exponentially harder and is way more difficult to wound. ...But at least she's finally HAPPY to have an opponent worth fighting.
3) Eon's arcane agreement begins to debilitate and damage him the more hurt the PCs become; his allies do not share his values. The lavender tiefling becomes so overwhelmed by Bry and maintaining his arcane deal that he fails his saving throw to not become Entangled in a terrain hazard, and a few more failed saves later, becomes a sitting duck for the enraged Sorceress. ...So Bry intentionally devotes her resources and ire to immolate Eon, but not before he relinquishes his Staff Of Balance (Chronomancy) to her, somehow happy that she is the one to kill him.
4) At the precipice, the Skeleton Guard ache for a choice, and Akita hesitates. Instead, Buddy makes the decision FOR HER, forcing the crown onto her head. Her wounds disappear, the Skeletons bow, and her sight opens to the hundreds of spirit warriors now at her command. This transformation takes time (3 rounds), and she can interact with her growing powers each turn, but again, it takes time.
Quick Aside - My Little Rant On Fighters
Fighters should absolutely NOT be equipment-dependent. It is freaking ludicrous.
Also, WHY can't a Battle Master use Commander's Strike on a spell caster and that spell caster burn their Reaction to cast a cantrip? "Because a spell isn't a weapon." Yeah, yeah. Well, in the Feywild (purely as a product of the PCs being exposed to such a high magic surge area, and not because that was one of the most sad I've seen my Fighters), you can! So there.
It's not like Hush's abilities are broken, but she's rocking three classes (Fighter - Echo Knight, Rogue - Swashbuckler, Barbarian - Zealot) to gain the features to make her feel effective in combat. She isn't loaded up with crazy gear (good gear, nasty gear, but not ludicrous), and remember, they were prepared; so its feasible to get there, HOWEVER, you should not be required to multi-class in order to make your primary class effective.
Our PC party (at the moment) has TWO fighters; a Battle Master and a legit archer build, but with all this magic getting flung around, it can be easy to feel behind the pack, and vanilla fighter deserves better. Yet, in every campaign I have run, the fighter gains (through organic storytelling, questing, growth, and other such good stuff, mind you) a home-brew boon of some effect, to help off-set the distinct power creep from the other classes.
How It Ended
As Akita rises up and the crown begins to take hold...Albrecht, the leader of the Gears, appears from behind a veil of invisibility. Flying next to Akita, he grapples her (one hand on her throat, the other to her sternum) and channels divinity, attempting to interrupt her life force and fell her in one strike. She saves, allowing Buddy time to leap onto both of them, biting onto Albrecht's arm. Akita, in her second round, summons the skeletons and shades to help, and they begin to drift toward them.
Hush, seeing an opportunity, fells Terhune a second time. Then, with a sickening stab and a twist, ends his life then and there in front of Taman. As Bry puts the finishing touches on her murder-immolation across the map, Albrecht quickens a Banishment - "No hard feelings, pup" - and boops poor Buddy on the nose, hurling him into the Astral Sea. With Akita still in his grasp and at death's door, Albrecht uses a Deathly Grasp on her throat, wrenching her into unconsciousness. As her body goes limp on the ruined pedestal, he snatches the crown, calling out to Hush that it's time to leave.
Hush is hesitant, now that she has a worthy opponent all to herself, but she abides. Taman and a renewed Jenkins get some good hits in (Sentinel, bitch!), but she's able to scrape close enough over the next turn. Albrecht regards the dying Akita, and reaches out, stabilizing the girl (Spare The Dying - Grave Cleric). He then cracks the tiny Gem Of Recall, and pulls himself and Hush far and away from this plane. The Skeletons and Shades of the Hunt...are pulled with them.
And the party is left alone in silent, mossy ruins. Jenkins slumps to his knees as Taman sprints to Akita and pulls her back to consciousness. She sits up in silence, and Taman rushes back to Terhune's still body, Jenkins with him. Taman pulls a strange fruit from his pack; something he nicked many sessions ago - a Fruit Of Restoration (what kind? No one knows!) - he opens up Terhune's mouth and forces it down his throat. They watch as vines and earth begin to cover, then swallow the silver dragonborn's body, a Reincarnation-like spell taking effect.
A minute passes, and Buddy does not return to them. But somewhere in the Astral Sea, he is meeting a Githyanki pirate and Werewolf Vampire Hunter, picked up by an Astral Spelljammer vessel hell-bent on outrunning a Dreadnought. I'm sure he'll be fine.
Proof Of Concept and The Lowest Point
The Feywild is a land that, on the surface, might appear more silly than serious. However, the consistent theming of this campaign yields specific truths of the setting.
1) Fey and their realm are mischievous, dark, and often twisted entities who care very little for the mortal coil. Just because it looks nice, doesn't mean it's safe. Even the "jokes" of the Fey can be deadly.
2) Magic, though not at its most raw, perpetuates all living things here. So, weird stuff abounds, and it's pretty common.
3) There are rules, and they are numerous, for navigating the Fey realms safely; but many do not know them, and they often change dependent on a plethora of factors.
4) Fey and their ilk are often unreliable narrators, choosing interpretation over hard facts; this laces their words and veils their intentions - a true Theater Of Life.
5) Study of this realm yields immense power, but it requires extensive time, focus, and energy. Even a little bit of digging reveals the dark tone beneath the whimsy (consistent from the beginning of the campaign). ...we just really saw this one, this time. :(
It was stated before that this group has done quite well just stumbling through. Sometimes the PCs plan a little here and there, but mostly they do exceptional when they fly by the skin of their teeth. These PLAYERS are top-notch; they bring vibrant expression, creativity, knowledge, and joy to the table, which only deepens our collective world, and they PAY ATTENTION, no worries. And all have expressed that they brought creatures to the table who are "inexperienced" in at least one important skill each. Good! This found family has done amazing things in the face of overwhelming odds - by luck, creativity, allies, and pure unadulterated pun power!
This is the first time that they were unsuccessful, in the traditional sense. The bad guys "got away." One of the party is missing, another is dead (but not for long!), and the others are grappling with their decisions - some made BY them, others made FOR them. From the DM's side, I offer opportunities for choices, but the distinct choices are specified and executed by these veteran players. They are organic, in the moment, sometimes snap character decisions. Which means, another reason why I love this party, we now have a huge opportunity...
We get to DEAL WITH THOSE DECISIONS.
Cultivating Aftermath and The Arc Of A Character
Every character in this party was struck down in this session. Whether it be the very real severing of physical mortality, or the denser psychological dread of vengeance, or the helplessness of being a human in a world of fairies. For many, this could be described as their lowest point.
It can be a rough place to be in as a character, let alone a PLAYER. Several members have talked openly about the "mistakes" they made during the fight; things they could have done differently if the dice had cooperated; musings on certain game mechanics and gear load out... And yet, each came out with a plan to process this experience. Maybe we take some extra time before our next session, but we WILL have another session, and many more after that. This story WILL continue. Where it goes, is up to us.
In all great stories, especially ones that we share, this moment occurs. Some hit it harder than others, but they share the same term. We have entered The Abyss in our heroic journey. It is the space diametrically opposed by our Call To Adventure (our first few sessions). Often this is a Death and Rebirth - for some, perhaps more literally than others - and what comes next is a Transformation; rising action, rebuilding momentum, standing back up with lessons learned.
Initially I was concerned with the low energy post-session. With so many mirthful games under our belts, it felt WRONG to end the session like that. I became obsessed with the idea that I had led them astray; wounded them somehow. And what we all needed was a little extra time to process the events, and hatch a plan moving forward. What we've done, at last, is setup an arc for just about everyone. Our innocent, fun-loving Sorceress just straight-up murdered a dude (he was probably bad news, but still); our werewolf is Lost In Space, dealing with the guilt of putting the crown on Akita; Akita is grappling with being robbed of her choice, and yet craving the crown for the good it could do; Terhune, literally dead, drifts through his Ethereal past as his body and soul are reconstructed anew; Jenkins sits in silence, feeling weak and a waste of space, completely unable to enact his vengeance; and Taman, the old fighter and tactician, the hero of this story and the glue of this group, couldn't protect his adopted family even if he tried.
That is an Abyss.
And, as anyone who has struggled their own depression knows, the first step out of the dark is the hardest. But with every step, you will be stronger for it. You will stumble, you will learn, you will heal, and you will keep moving forward.
This time: Death (close Phase I)
Next time: the steps toward Rebirth. (open Phase II)
See you at the table.
Legacy In The Fleets Of Spelljammer
Aberrant, magical beasts of arachnid legs and eel bodies, the Neogi are another remnant of a more alien dungeons & dragons experience. Often described as the blend of a wolf spider and a giant eel, Neogi are monstrous to behold. These telepathic, mind-controlling masters of intellect and technology once roamed the extraplanar space and time of the Spelljammer ethos.
A society built upon cunning, opportunity, and devious plots, these aberrants sought power and prestige among the stars. Their ships, often called Mindspiders, drifted through the Astral Sea, or its legacy name - The Sea Of Night, within the Realmspace (a whole other fascinating can of illithid). Some of their ships could even shift into other planes, and prey upon the Githyanki and Djinn vessels across known space.
-- A Neogi Mindspider, primed for assault --
Might and Magic
As with all intelligent societies, the Neogi have a curious relationship with their gods and their roles.
Gender is not a thing in Neogi society, a fact that extends to its deities. These entities are more complex; built from the concert of certain barbaric ideas. For example, one deity personifies torture, pain, and suffering; while another stems from the chaos of creation; still another is fueled by envy or jealousy (the Neogi's understanding of "love").
But the Neogi's relationship and interpretation of these entities is particularly interesting. Unlike many other societies, Neogi culture dictates that the gods of their pantheon do not take tribute from their followers; it is very much the opposite. These mythic creatures are instead demanded favors and boons regularly; these gods, the Neogi believe, are merely servants of the Neogi race, and therefore MUST provide. For a deity to fail in this endeavor would mean their destruction, and devouring, as another more powerful "servant" would take their place.
However, the Neogi, always primed for chances at greater power, would not settle for their servant gods. In their journeys across realms, Neogi shamans (warlocks) would strike pacts with the powerful entities they came across - most notably some of the literal Elder Evils of D&D's legacy: Acamar, Caiphon, Gibbeth, and HADAR (you heard me). They took these greater beings on as mentors and helped further their influence in the known and unknown cosmos.
Science and Industry
Though their bodies and visage would lead one to believe only in a monstrous, primitive society, the Neogi are highly advanced in many studies and disciplines. The stratification of roles and duty can even be observed in how they paint or tattoo their furry abdomens, certain colors denoting specific trades and responsibilities.
With little empathy for other creatures, the Neogi are accomplished "flesh weavers" and necromancers, using the parts and pieces of numerous other species, slaves, and failed experiments to produce terrible and fascinating new monstrocities. It is rumored among Loremasters that these arachnid "mad scientists" are responsible for the creation of the Gray Render... Though no others can prove such a claim. The poor Umber Hulk and its cousins have been summarily studied, dissected, mutated, and raised from certain death by these practices, the dreaded Undead Hulk - an Umber Hulk flesh golem of regenerating pincers and necrotic spray - finding a home as both a Neogi guard dog and their prime enforcer.
Aforementioned warlocks and the few wizards of their clans were both motivated and industrial, forging new and modified versions of spells to adapt and support their war parties, and extend their dark rituals.
Speaking of rituals - this is how more Neogi are created. You see, as a Neogi reaches the end of its life and its memory begins to fade, a Neogi Priest will inject a powerful venom into the aging Neogi and perform an ancient ritual. Usually small or medium creatures, this elder Neogi will swell to a 20-foot behemoth called a Great Old Master. This mutated creature will remember nothing of its old life and will be driven only to eat, growing as large as possible. Those with Feeder striations in their fur must now gather as much food for the Great Old Master, as it eats and creates eggs inside its massive body. After two months of growth, the eggs hatch, killing the Old Master. The 20 to 40 new Neogi spawn then feed on the Old Master's corpse...and each other, until the strongest of the cluster survive.
By The Numbers (5th Edition)
In 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, you'll likely run across the Neogi in three forms - the Hatchling, the standard Neogi and the Master. Let's break them down.
HATCHLING (tiny) - young and fledgling (AC 10-11; HP Level 1 Wizard), these are dangerous in large numbers and simple on their own. Just don't wake up their older siblings.
NEOGI (small) - better natural armor (AC 15-16) and multi-attack makes this bugger a tougher beast to tango with, but this standard beastie comes with the main thing that makes these critters tick. The Neogi has an Enslave ability (Short or Long Rest dependent) that pushes a Wisdom save. Fail that, and you're charmed by the creature for one DAY (and it knocks out your Reactions - bummer). Oh and did I mention that the Neogi talks to you telepathically during this whole thing out to a distance of one mile? *shudder*
MASTER (medium) - not to be confused with the "Great Old" variety, these nasty variations on a theme get everything their small counterparts do (plus more than double their HP pool), and are freaking spellcasters! Looks like these masters went all in for the Hadar fan club with a slice of Confused Bard, so be ready for some telepathic Vicious Mockery while being whalloped with Eldritch Blast for good measure. Be careful too, they can function as a 7th-9th level caster, so that spell save may be meaner than you think at low level. And I know I mentioned the "Hadar vibe", but any DM that does their research can mix up that power set to match another Elder Evil (wink-wink).
Now, each of these creatures has the Mental Fortitude of an Elf and Spider Climb, so watch your six. What they lack in empathy, they make up for in numbers, and if they're following that Spartan Chuck-E-Cheese childhood, you can bet that what's coming for you ain't no pushover.
Closing Thoughts and Interpretations
The Neogi are a Legacy Monster.
Given their expansive and extensive lore dating back to second edition (2e), not to mention their pronounced influence within the Spelljammer history, their current iteration and inclusion feels lackluster. There are dozens of fascinating creatures with deep history and ethos in Faerun and worlds beyond that are offered only a tiny passage in Volo's Guide, or Mordenkainen's Tome, or the Monster Manual talking about them, and, unfortunately, many of these passages end with a "nobody really knows" and a shrug (flips page).
To say that these are missed opportunities isn't exactly fair, either. At its core, 5th Edition is intended to be accessible. You don't want to bury the DM in mountains of back-logged history (some of it quite problematic today) just to get an interesting critter on the board. So instead, I offer up my own approach:
This awesome monster can be a one-off. A "well, that was weird, moving on" type moment. OR, much like what happens when I do my research for each of these, this monster is a launching point of inspiration. Truthfully, I hadn't yet considered the Neogi's place in my homebrew setting, but you can BET I've got one mixing now. The rabbit hole I jumped into has some really cool avenues to play with, and I can twist and turn and mutate them however I see fit.
These things have a huge spider motif going for them - could they be distantly connected to Lolth? Maybe the Drow that serve her hate Neogi, because they believe their banners as an affront to their queen! You don't know (shrugs and cackles in DM).
My point is that for every moment of disappointment found in a feature, creature, or spell, there can instead be a tiny mote of inspiration, leading you to a setting with greater depth, immersion, and personal craft.
A twig snaps,
A child cries.
I draw a knife,
The lantern lies.
"Hope," it whispers,
A fire warm.
But follow it, my dears,
And summon the swarm...
At A Glance
Will-O-Wisps are evil wisps of light that lift from malevolent corpses and haunt both battlefields and the lonely reaches of dark forests. Bound by dark magic, they lure unwary creatures into quicksand, lava flows, and monster lairs, reveling in the agony of their victims. Evil creatures that fall prey to the false hope of a Will-O-Wisp often become one themselves, and tend to gather in places of oppressive sorrow and death; graveyards, ghost towns, and dark forests of murder. Spiraling in these desolate places of lost hope and fragmented memory, they pull creatures toward dismal fates and feed on their misery.
Dungeons and Dragons, and its many branches, are not the only interpreters of this creature.
The story of the Will-O-Wisp harkens back hundreds of years in European and Asian folklore. These "ghost-lights" were sometimes evil spirits, other times witches or supernatural beings transformed. Whatever the influence, the creatures never spelled good fortune for those who saw them.
My own experience in the folklore of these lights ties back into Scottish folklore specifically, where the creatures were simply the spirits and fairies of the forest. I think that this simplified interpretation led my own writing down the fey path for these entities. The luring, however, was always a gimmick. I remember distinct dreams of following these wisps of dancing light and smoke as they percolated through a dense wooded trail. At the end, however, was not my demise; instead, a mysterious hooked staff covered in ancient vines. It would whisper to me like wordless whispers of the spirits that brought me there...
By The Numbers
These tiny undead orbs are quick (high AC), fast (50-60 feet hover speed), and resistant to a bunch of damage types, if not outright IMMUNE (lightning and poison). But if you can land one or two good hits on them, even at low level, you should be okay. Trouble is, they rarely move alone; where one appears, many more follow.
WoW's are Invisible until they attack (a little shock) or use their very scary "Consume Life" ability, so you literally won't see them coming. That latter ability is what makes these critters one of the nastiest in the Monster Manual, even at higher levels. Any creature with a low Constitution saving throw, even an epic hero, can straight up die from its effect. Die, not go unconscious, not become incapacitated. They die. DC 10 is standard, but that 5% chance Natural 1 could kill your character outright without a clutch Revivify in your back pocket.
Don't try to grapple these suckers either; they'll pass right through you, and their Dexterity save is stupid high. You see a swarm, you run, or let loose a big freaking fire ball...then run faster.
Will-O-Wisps In Io
Though the origins of the creature rarely differ, their intentions in Io are often less miserable. They are also HEAVILY influenced by the plane that they exist in.
WoWs of the Feywild will be more innocent and mischievous - still deadly, mind you - but their souls of dead sprites and nymphs don't understand the weight of their actions. It's tragic, really. These playful spirits are drawing creatures into their sight to feel not so alone...which kills their new friends anyway.
WoWs of the Shadowfell carry a sorrowful weight and an unending desire to consume the living. These spirits are tormented by the wales of their own death that they seek rebirth by draining the life force from other beings. This usually manifests in alternative versions of their Consume Life ability, wherein they don't kill the target. Instead, they inhabit their body, siphoning the creature of each of its attributes until only a husk remains...and a Wight is born instead.
The more I write on these creatures, the greater the permutations and variations that manifest across the planes. I consider what is in the Monster Manual as fact for the Material Plane, but as any Horizon Walker knows...Planeshift is one helluva drug.
Be safe out there, and beware the lights that drift in the forest.
Will-O-Wisps can be found all over Dungeons & Dragons, but for 5th Edition, look no further than the classic Monster Manual.
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Displacer Beasts roamed the endless twilight of the Feywild for ages, until they were captured, bred, and trained by the Unseelie Court. The Soldiers Of Winter bred the beasts to reinforce their own ferocious nature, utilizing them to hunt unicorns, pegasi, and other mythical, wondrous creatures. However, it was only a matter of time before these malevolent prides broke away from their cruel masters.
Running and breeding freely in the Feywild, the Displacer Beasts soon came to the attention of the Seelie Court. With Blink Dog companions of their own, the rivalry was palpable, and the Summer Court drove the Displacer Beasts to the edges of the wild. To this day, Displacer Beasts and Blink Dogs attack each other on sight, an ancient violence.
By The Numbers
The Displacer Beast is a strong and agile adversary. What it lacks in AC (12-14), it makes up for with multiple attacks, decent speed (40-50), and good pool of hit points (80-130). Some versions of the monstrosity don't even include its menacing claws, the stat block only exploring its strange spined tentacles. ...This is a dumb choice; it's a freaking badass panther with six legs - use them. Some variants include a pouncing mechanic where the Displacer Beast can knock a creature down, and take a rending attack on their prone form for free, opting to slash with their claws or bite into their food.
What makes the Displacer Beast particularly dangerous are its other key mechanics:
1. Avoidance - basically Evasion for monsters. Made the save - no damage. Failed the save - half damage. Means that they're hardier than you would expect.
2. Displacement - attacks against the creature have disadvantage until it actually gets hit, and this passive power recharges at end of its turns. Abilities like Sentinel, where a creature's speed can be made 0, will also interrupt this ability, but you still have to HIT IT first.
Displacer Beasts In Io
Displacer Beasts were once the prized jailers and guards of the nobility that filled the upper ranks of the Unseelie Court. After the Massacre At Harrowhome, however, their prized position grew scattered, and one too many instances of their allegiance being swayed fell dim upon the Dread Queen Mab. In the Ruins of the Season, deep in the harrowed halls of the broken citadels of beasts and men, prides of Displacer Beasts roam and hunt.
But not all nobility has turned a blind eye to these creatures with a love for the kill. Excellent trackers, a Displacer Beast may sometimes roam with hunters and assassins of a deadly order. Creatures contracted to hunt their own, these "Skipjacks" utilize the Displacer Beast as a dangerous ally in their pursuit of their fellow Fey.
Variant: Displacer Alpha
An Alpha is the king of a Displacer Pride, and it got there by vicious rite and ritual combat.
In the dark wilds of the Feywild, variants of the Displacer Beast have emerged. Brandishing a living cloak of up to nine tentacles, these larger and stronger mutations are intelligent, calculating, cruel, and linguistic. This allows cunning tactics and maneuvers for the prides they command.
In addition to a superior size (Huge) and strength (20-22), an Alpha brandishes layered cords of muscle and bone; armored spurs beneath their shifting fur and ethereal displacement (AC of 16-17). The multitude of tendrils that they command grant them unique properties - like grappling, poisoning, and restraining their prey. An Alpha is also a master of its ethereal displacement, able to teleport short distances without sacrificing momentum as part of their Pounce feature.
If an Alpha is ever usurped by another within the Pride, they are exiled - a Disgraced Alpha. These lonely mutations wander the dark wastes to either seize another throne or serve some greater being than themselves. Whatever the circumstance, they are not to be trifled with.
Legend Of The Shift King
GM's Note: Since the first campaign I ran in this custom setting, there have been old tapestries, panoramas, ancient texts, and obscure references that player-characters have stumbled across. Each lore drop would be a tiny morsel of a much larger picture; an eight-legged displacer beast with boney spurs around the jaw-line, multiple tendrils lifting from its back like a living mantle, and a crown of black and silver spines protruding from its head. This regal creature was always set upon a high rock surrounded by hundreds of other beasts, each bowing to it as if it were their king.
The first time this image was presented, I remember my players vigorously writing it down. At any point following this, any players to be present during this strange initial reveal would bring it up again if ever they fell into an encounter with a Displacer Pride, but little came of it.
Will we see more? Only my players can tell you...
Tread safely under the borealis of the Feywild.
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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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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
As anyone who has had any kind of Dungeons and Dragons conversation with me knows, I’m highly opinionated about the various dimensions of D&D, including mechanics, class design, and how a DM’s adjudication impacts everyone’s enjoyment at the table. In Fifth Edition’s context, the game values that have the greatest impact on the system are the six Ability Scores that quantify the general traits of every creature in the system (and honestly, more objects than you’d think). It’s also one of the most frustrating aspects of the game to teach, because often new players mistake their personal understanding of each score’s label with their mechanical function in Fifth Edition’s game system, and as a result the roleplaying/narrative implications that come about as a result. For today’s Study Hall, we’re going to look at the mechanics of each Ability Score and how your choice in how they’re distributed can broaden your narrative possibilities rather than limit them. So to begin, the first thing we have to acknowledge is that...
Not all Ability Scores are Created Equal
Unless your DM implements a host of homebrew to rebalance Fifth Edition’s system, not all Ability Scores carry an equal amount of mechanical weight. In fact, there’s a clear distinction between which scores are more powerful and which ones are less. In general (unless you’re utilizing a class that prioritizes them), Strength and Intelligence will generally be used less often than Dexterity, Constitution, and Wisdom. It’s always good to have one party member with high Charisma, but even then the prior “Big Three” (as I call them) will be called on more often in all three pillars of play, whereas Charisma really only affects social interaction and combat (if you’re playing a Charisma caster).
As an example, let’s compare the number of instances where Strength and Dexterity will be called for:
Strength can factor into your character’s melee attack rolls, damage rolls, some thrown weapon attacks, Athletics checks (usually called for in Exploration) and the static value, Carrying Capacity.
Dexterity can factor into your character’s Armor Class, Initiative, Dexterity saves (the most common saving throw), Stealth (one of the most common ability checks), Acrobatics, Sleight of Hand, and Attack and Damage rolls with some melee and most ranged weapons.
One last element to consider is that most Strength weapons characters have limited ranged options, while Dexterity weapons characters are equally effective in melee and at range. In fact, these differences are so drastic that one of the first characters I DM’d for, a Sorcerer with a -1 Dex, was almost unplayable because a single missed Dexterity save or an attack roll aimed at him would virtually exclude him from further participating in combat.
Now I’m not saying you can’t have fun with a character that has a -1 to one of these “Big Three” Ability Scores, but I am saying that understanding the statistical weight they carry will positively impact your relationship with 5e. You’ll know what you’re signing up for.
Some Thoughts on the Tomato Analogy
So how do we go about teaching the six Ability Scores? One way many Dungeon Masters do this is through the famous Tomato Analogy. It goes as follows:
Strength is being able to crush a tomato.
Dexterity is being able to dodge a tomato.
Constitution is being able to eat a bad tomato.
Intelligence is knowing a tomato is a fruit.
Wisdom is knowing not to put a tomato in a fruit salad.
Charisma is being able to sell a tomato-based fruit salad.
Seems simple enough, right? However, I tend to actively avoid using this tool when I’m teaching the system. First, I like teaching a mechanics-first approach, meaning that a new player at my table is discouraged from looking at the narrative text in a section without taking the mechanical text into consideration, because ultimately, the narrative can be changed to accommodate what you want while the mechanics generally have to stay the same for the game to function well. In addition, I find that players that only focus on the story text can often misinterpret the text’s intentions, and there tends to be more time spent explaining why the mechanical text carries more weight in the Dungeon Master’s adjudication rather than the story reasoning. The Tomato Analogy is a perfect example of this failing.
While the analogy certainly isn’t inaccurate, it can be misleading. For example, it fails to convey the point I made in the previous section: not all Ability Scores are created equal. Unless you’re running a specific class or build, Dexterity and Constitution have far more functional pay off than Strength or Intelligence, and even with a Strength character, often having a +2 Dex and the highest Con will almost always lean in to your character being more generally effective.
Another issue with this analogy is that it doesn’t encompass the magnitude of how each Ability Score functions in the system. With a cursory glance, one might assume that Strength is an offensive stat, Dexterity and Constitution are defensive, and Charisma is used mostly for buying and selling items. It doesn’t give the impression that Dexterity is an overall more useful offensive and defensive stat than Strength, and that Wisdom saves are used to guard your mind more often than Intelligence saves.
Speaking of Wisdom, while we can argue back and forth on our personal definitions of Wisdom, its game functionality in Fifth Edition is very specific. In Dungeons and Dragons, as it says in 5e’s SRD, “Wisdom reflects how attuned you are to the world around you and represents perceptiveness and intuition”. In game terms, Wisdom is usually used for Perception and Insight checks, which inform players about their environment and clues about the characters occupying it. What I would find more useful as part of this analogy would be that “Wisdom is knowing how your guests feel about the tomatoes in their salad” or “Wisdom is seeing where best to plant tomatoes in your garden”. Wisdom checks usually boil down to sensory input in one form or another. Tangentially, it's why I hate when DMs use Perception checks for general features of an environment and Investigation for finding something specific. Intelligence is a Score that resolves character knowledge and reasoning skills, not sensory input, but I digress. Hey, I told you I was opinionated, right?
So What DO They Mean?
I mean, that’s the title of this piece, right? “What Ability Scores Mean”. And, to give context to this section, we’re really asking how their mechanics can inform our roleplaying. From my perspective, Ability Scores are a way to quantify general traits in relation to an average person. Ability Scores also provide the base modifier to a package of different abilities. To not get too nitty gritty (and to give my version of the Tomato analogy), the way I sum up the six ability scores is as follows:
Strength represents your character’s fitness and power
Dexterity represents your character’s quickness and coordination
Constitution represents your character’s endurance and physical tolerance
Intelligence represents your character’s education and reasoning skills
Wisdom represents your character’s awareness and discipline
Charisma represents your character’s expressiveness and personal magnetism
So even if you have different ways you think about these traits (like you may see overlap in the definitions of Constitution and Strength, for instance), Fifth Edition’s system interprets very narrow definitions of these traits.
For example, wouldn’t a character with a high level of fitness also have high endurance? Maybe, maybe not. For instance, there’s very different training that goes into sprinting versus marathon running, and you can see it in the two runners’ bodies. I’ve also met plenty of individuals with fantastic Strength that have intolerances to certain ingredients (which is where Constitution may be called for instead). While storywise we can argue that the two are related (and Strength characters almost always benefit from a high Constitution), they are not mutually inclusive.
So what does it mean to have a high value in one of these Ability Scores? Well, it means that either due to natural talent, training, or both (or some other reason), your character has a greater likelihood to succeed in challenges related to that trait. This doesn’t mean they should or will automatically succeed, and in fact sometimes a character may choose to fail a certain roll based on the situation. For example, let’s take a look at a high Charisma character, maybe a Bard or Warlock. While that character is more likely to succeed on Charisma checks, the player behind the character may want to play the character as honest-to-a-fault. By the game’s system, they have a natural bonus to Deception checks because of their Ability Score, although the player can voluntarily fail such rolls or choose not to partake in them. In this way, failure can be just as if not more character defining than success.
The opposite can also be true. Just because your character has a low Intelligence score doesn’t mean that they’re an idiot. If you were to distill the meaning or motivation behind all Intelligence checks, they would either be to recall information (usually the character’s education), or a test of their reasoning skills. A -1 modifier doesn’t necessarily mean that character can’t make logical decisions. It might just mean they lacked the educational resources an average person in the world has access to, and as a result won’t be familiar with that information as easily. Now of course this can be explained by a character’s lack of interest in such topics, and I’ve seen plenty of Barbarians take a penalty to Intelligence in a standard array and roleplayed as brutish thugs. I’m just saying that isn’t the only narrative explanation for such a thing.
Now, if you build characters with a standard array like I do, then characters you create will have built in strengths and flaws. For example, my favorite character to bring up for instances like this is my character Solomon, whose two greatest Ability Scores are Dexterity and Wisdom and whose lowest score is Charisma. Solomon was built with story in mind. He’s a genetically engineered monster hunter (I know, very derivative) with dampened emotions, keeping him from emotionally connecting with others but still aware of how they feel. In the game’s system, this is reflected by the penalty that factors into his Charisma checks, while his Expertise in Insight also allows him to read others very effectively. He’s a joy to play because his flaw is as much as what defines him as well as his uncanny awareness and swift decisive fighting style.
When it comes to distributing Ability Scores for your character, I’d start with thinking what Ability Score can they do without. Where are they designed to run into trouble, and where are they going to shine? While the dice may roll as they may, it doesn’t mean you can’t design your character’s story with these specific moments in mind. For me, the moments where Solomon shines are when he gives an in-depth analysis of a creature, or can call out an NPC for lying just by taking a look at them and feeling their heartbeat. His character is also defined by his struggles, such as his inability to persuade others emotionally or deceive others.
Ability Scores are at the heart of this game’s math for a reason. They are quantitative values that beg players to ask bigger questions when the dice are rolled and when results are added up. If my character failed, was this just because of luck or were they designed this way? How does this failure manifest, and what is the reason for their success? What moments do I want my character to be remembered for?
While I can go on with advice on how to build characters, I’d rather you play with this first. Build characters with high and low Wisdom, and ask yourself to play them differently. When they succeed, how do you celebrate that success? When they fail, is that part of their personality and how do they take it? Do they even realize they failed?
And as always, I’d love your perspectives on the matter. After all, collaboration is what makes this game so special in my heart.
Study Hard, Play Hard
One question I often come across in various Dungeons and Dragons conversations is “How do I balance my combat encounters?” It’s far from a bad question, but reading through the various responses, it seems that it only scratches the surface of its intent. Based on the answers, there seems to be this assumption that a “balanced” encounter somehow guarantees a “fun” encounter, that if an enemy’s statistics are perfectly calculated, the party will be engaged and energized. Now I’m not at all saying that game balance is irrelevant to this topic, but oftentimes it's treated as if it's the only component worth talking about. So, if game balance is only one piece of the puzzle, what are other tools we can use to build combat encounters that reward players for their engagement?
Tool #1: Game Balance and Setting Values
Game Balance is a term that gets thrown around a lot in DMing circles, but do we know what it actually means? To keep myself accountable, I went to the most reliable information source I had: Wikipedia. Wikipedia defines game balance as a “part of game design (that) can be described as a mathematical-algorithmic model of a game’s numbers, game mechanics, and relations between those. Therefore, game balancing consists in adjusting those to create the intended experiences, usually positive ones.” And although we can debate the legitimacy of Wikipedia as a reputable source, I do agree with this definition.
The key takeaway from this is that the reason we’re adjusting game statistics is to create an “intended experience”. The game system’s numbers are set so that they give players a certain feeling when they discover them. To do this effectively with a creature stat block you tend to run in combat, you have to consider your player characters’ statistics when setting them. The only real meaning to quantities in Dungeons and Dragons is to compare them to each other. It doesn’t matter if a player character has a Strength of 20 or 40, as long as it’s in proportion to what that character should feel like compared to a commoner. If a player character has a Strength of 40, and a commoner has a Strength of 35, your player character won’t feel as exceptional.
So let’s take a look at some values we can set for our creatures, and the impact they have on the experience we intend to deliver.
Armor Class and Attack Bonus
Armor Class (AC) determines how often your creature gets hit, and will largely inform your players if Attack Rolls or Saving Throws are more reliable to use. Do note that Martial Classes rely on Attack Rolls to hit, so if you create a creature with a virtually prohibitive AC, you may invalidate the efforts of at least half of the available character classes in the game. This is fine for presenting a creature the party isn’t intended to fight, but it can be soul-crushing when the party fighter feels completely ineffective because they are excluded from participating in the fight due to statistics.
When I set a creature’s AC, I first look at my players’ average Attack Bonus. For example, in my latest game, my players were all 5th level, meaning they have a proficiency bonus of +3. If they didn’t intentionally misbuild their characters, their primary stat is probably a +3 or +4, meaning that they have an average attack bonus of +6 or +7. Therefore, if I have a creature with an AC of 17, they’ll have to roll at least a 10 or 11 on the d20 to hit, meaning they have a 50-55% chance to hit my creature. If I increase the AC any higher, that chance decreases even more. I find that when players have a 40% chance or lower to hit a creature, they’ll feel as if they’re not meant to hit it. Although we can justify the reasoning why a creature may have an AC of 18 or 19, is that reasoning more important than giving your players the excitement of hitting and dealing damage?
Of course, as with anything in TTRPGs, there are exceptions. One factor I consider when designing the environment of the encounter is how easy it is for my players to get advantage on their attack rolls. Advantage accounts for an average of an additional +5 to their attack rolls, meaning characters with a set attack bonus of +6 or +7 are now functionally rolling with a +11 or +12, and they have a greater chance to land a critical hit. If I set up an encounter where it's easy to flank, or I know one of my players brought a Druid or Mastermind Rogue that has features or spells that grant their allies advantage, I have to rethink my math. Maybe an AC of 19 or 20, especially if I’m overt about the strategic clues my players can leverage to make the most out of each of their attacks. To reiterate, this is a mechanical approach in order to deliver an intended experience that is justified with description and story afterward.
One last piece of feedback I’ve taken to heart (in terms of Armor Class) was from one of my long time players and friends. “It always feels better to have a creature with a lower AC and more Hit Points because then at least I feel like I’m doing something.”
Now the flip side to Armor Class is the Attack Bonus, the modifier that’s added to an attack roll to determine if you hit a creature’s Armor Class. Just like I calculate my creature’s AC based off of my player’s attack bonuses, I also take their AC into account when designing my creature’s attack bonus. For example, if I know one my players have an AC of 14, a +8 attack bonus means my creature has to roll a 6 or higher on the d20 to hit. Add on multiple attacks, and they are hitting far more often than they miss.
Now that same +8 to hit the tanky fighter with an 18 AC? The creature has to roll a 10 or higher, meaning they have a 55% hit rate against that character. But is that the feeling I want my fighter to have? Do I want the party fighter to get hit more than half of the time? My answer, as always, is that it depends. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. If the party is fighting a single, tough monster like a troll or otyugh, then maybe the fighter takes some hits for the sake of the party. If the party is fighting a bandit captain and his goons, maybe I want the party fighter to feel a little unhittable and get excited by the fact that the goons aren’t able to make it past their masterful defense. After all, if they built their character with a high armor class, don’t we want to reward them with an encounter where they feel like they have a high armor class?
So to summarize this one quickly, first I look at the party’s average AC. The number of attacks matters here. Two attacks with a +8 modifier is a different game than one attack with +9. Remember, if a creature gets two attacks, both with +8, it's almost like they’re rolling with advantage (so really it's like one attack with a +13) with the difference being that if they roll high on both attacks, the damage is essentially doubled. In Fifth Edition’s simple math, a one point change in Attack Bonus or Armor Class can lead to a huge gap in probability, and adding or subtracting attacks or actions will quickly widen that gap further.
HP and Damage Output
Hit points are a measurement of progress in a fight, and I actually find that the average hit points presented in the Monster Manual cause combat to get over with a little too quickly. However, maxing out a creature’s potential hit points is a great way to create tension in a combat encounter. Remember that game statistics are used for reference. If your 5th level Barbarian has sixty something hit points, and the thing their fighting has 240, how will your Barbarian feel in comparison?
Also remember that you as the DM are at liberty to change a creature’s hit points on the fly (a contentious opinion, but my opinion nonetheless). For example, I remember a one shot I participated in where we were introducing a brand new player to Dungeons and Dragons. We were all 4th level, and were fighting a young green dragon as an end boss. The new player, a Paladin, had used a potion of flying, which the DM described as giving him two luminescent angel wings. On his next turn, just as the dragon’s breath weapon knocked out my druid (the healer) and the sorcerer (our primary damage dealer up until that point), the paladin catapulted toward the dragon, hit with a Natural 20, used Divine Smite, and slayed the beast. After the game, the DM admitted to me in a private message that really, the dragon would have had 1 hit point left, but what made for a better story? The paladin (again, played by a NEW player) charging forward with heavenly wings and smiting with the wrath of Celestia? Or the ranger shooting another mundane arrow. When there’s an epic moment that can generate a memorable finish to a fight, why does the last hit point matter?
My final piece of advice on hit points is to include more resistances and vulnerabilities to your creatures. I took this from Zee Bashew’s Making Enemies in 5e Witchery (link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhjkPv4qo5w&t=46s), and it’s only made my combats more exciting since. One of our goals in crafting exciting encounters is to reward players with engagement, meaning they’re paying attention to story clues that can help them strategize in combat. I can’t count the number of times a DM has given a lengthy and vivid description of their monster, and when I went to act on that description to give me an edge in combat, they’re response is “Well, that was for flavor. There are no mechanics to take advantage of”. To me, they might have well have said “Thank you for listening to my lengthy description. It doesn’t actually matter if you did or not. I’m just using it to justify a bunch of custom mechanics to make your life more difficult”. And I’m not picking on one person. I’ve played with a lot of different DMs, and this has come up time and time again.
Rather, wouldn’t it reward engagement if it did matter? For example, if I said, “The aboleth’s skin glistens with a slimy coat of mucus as it cranes its body over the party”, and a player said, “Slimy? If I use a cold spell, will it restrict its movement?”, I may double movement penalties caused by a ray of frost, or give it disadvantage on a Constitution save against cone of cold. If my players are engaged with my descriptions, shouldn’t I reward them for that (even if I didn’t think of it during prep)? Even better, I may have cold damage deal double to this aboleth because of their logic. By offering different creatures with different vulnerabilities, it encourages players to try different spells and damage types in order to discover what works best against each kind of enemy. And, even though they’re dealing double damage, the creature’s hit points are maxed anyways so the rhythm of the fight isn’t really disrupted.
Resistances also give the players new information. If you present a creature with a resistance (that makes sense given its lore), then players may find that their go-to damage choice isn’t working, and encourages players to prepare two or more options of damage types to switch between. This way, a player doesn’t go through multiple combats relying on a single choice, then feeling as if an encounter was designed against them because their only prepared option doesn’t work. One thing to note on vulnerabilities and resistances: I almost never use them for physical damage (bludgeoning, piercing, slashing). If a creature is resistant in this way, it's to non-magical attacks. Most martial characters are built with a single weapon specialty in mind, and often only have one weapon damage type as their only option. When a DM enforces carry weight and variant encumbrance (like I do), it also complicates matters. Fifth Edition rewards casting characters much more than martial characters as is, so reducing the complications of feeling successful as a martial character improves the health of the party’s relationships.
As for damage output, I find that many times the default monster actions tend to do a great job at conveying how hard a creature can hit. If anything, I may increase or decrease the damage die by one size (like making a 2d6 attack 2d8), but I find that the number of attacks or actions is a much more relevant value to adjust rather than the damage it hits for. Like I said before, two attacks with a +8 attack bonus can be much more deadly than one attack with a +9, and understanding how much damage a creature is likely to output has to do with its action economy (more on that later).
Saving Throw Bonuses and Spell Save DC
It makes sense that each creature would have natural defenses against certain kinds of attacks, and that they should have greater saving throw bonuses to match. Like with vulnerabilities and resistances, the key to creating an exciting encounter is to give the enemy creature a discoverable weakness the players can leverage into their strategy. Also, as said before, those high and low saving throws should be based on context clues you include in your description, encouraging your players to remain engaged with the details you give them. A spindly creature with spider-like movements may have a high Dexterity save, but hitting them with a Wisdom saving spell may have a higher chance to succeed. A calculating enemy wizard may have studied how to protect their mind, but requiring them to succeed Dexterity saves may be more difficult for them.
Now each creature in Fifth Edition has a Saving Throw bonus to each of its main six abilities. However, three of them are more common than the rest, and these are the ones that matter in terms of game balance: Dexterity, Constitution, and Wisdom. When designing an encounter I usually have one of these saves be higher and one be lower, or keep all of them at relatively neutral values. Like how we set AC in relation to the party’s average Attack Bonus, taking their Spell Save DC into account. A +7 bonus to a Saving Throw might not sound like much, but if a player’s Spell Save DC is only 13, then it’s more likely than not your creature will succeed its save, and the player may not feel that spell is effective.
One counter example I’ve heard is that “old monsters are old for a reason”, and that they would have developed natural defenses to these common kinds of attacks. The logic does track. An ancient dragon is ancient because it figured out how to withstand Dexterity saves, is tough enough to handle a Constitution save, and may be wily enough to avoid a Wisdom save. However, if a creature has no weakness, it's just as boring as an encounter where everything always works.
This is where I like to employ conditional weaknesses. For example, let’s say the party is fighting an ancient red dragon. The dragon has decent saves across the board, and its immunity to fire damage and resistance to cold (at least, my dragon) is proving to be a challenge. However, when the dragon tries to fly, one of my players (who played Pokémon) decides to try to hit it with a call lightning spell. While the dragon isn’t vulnerable to lightning damage, it does have disadvantage on saving throws against lightning while it’s flying. By creating a condition that reveals the creature’s weakness, it encourages the party to strategize to solve the puzzle of the combat.
The last piece of this puzzle is legendary resistances, a mechanic I despise because it’s never been used to create excitement. Because legendary resistances are only used after the DM knows that the monster’s saving throw has failed, they retroactively rewrite a player’s success by design, which can leave a player feeling that their choice was meaningless. Now this doesn’t mean I don’t use legendary resistances at all, but the form they take is definitely adjusted from the by-the-book approach.
And like each of these sections, the flip side of calculating my creature’s Saving Throw bonuses is their Spell Save DC (or just DCs for whatever nasty effect they may have up their sleeves). However, unless the creature’s main abilities will revolve around the Spell Save DC rather than Attack Rolls, I’ll try to keep the Spell Save DC a little lower (usually between 13 and 15). The reason for this is that I usually tinker with my monsters’ action economy to balance out certain effects against the party, meaning they can spam Saving Throw features that inflict conditions that can really hamper the party. Because party members are more likely to have to make these saves, to me it creates a better flow to have them succeed slightly more than they fail. If that Save DC is too high, my players can be overwhelmed easily. Like I said before though, if the party is facing off against a dedicated caster whose whole schtick is using Saving Throw spells, then the Spell Save DC will be a little higher (probably a 17 or 18), although I usually design some kind of other flaw into their Stat Block that the party can take advantage of.
In summary of this tool, keep your players’ stats in mind while setting or adjusting the stats for the creatures you want to run. If you don’t know your players’ stats, build a quick character at their level and see what stats you’d generate. It’ll give you a pretty good idea of what numbers to work with to create an exciting experience. Just remember, little changes make a big difference, and even a one point change can be the difference between an exciting battle, a frustrating one, or worse yet a boring one.
Tool #2: Action Economy
One resource that fundamentally changed the way I look at running enemy creatures was Matt Coleville’s Action Oriented Monsters video (link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_zl8WWaSyI&t=1282s), which posits that giving monsters a full action economy can change the dynamic between player characters and their foes. Most creatures don’t get a bonus action or reaction in the same way that PCs with Class Levels get. If you break down a standard action economy, a single big creature gets one turn for every four turns that an enemy party gets, which means the player character party gets to hit four times as many times as the one big monster. While this might be balanced by just giving the one big monster higher stats, like we determined earlier, four times as many actions is a very different economy then two bigger attacks.
Now there is a little bit of divergence I’ve taken from Coleville’s approach. Coleville grants his monsters extra actions that coincide with the same language as the players. Oftentimes, I ignore this mechanical language to bring my players’ attention to the action at hand, both in description and in function. Rather than have my creatures choose between casting a spell or attacking twice, I let them do both. Why? I’m the DM, I say so, and it creates more exciting encounters. Not only do my solo monsters deal damage, they usually have an additional condition-inflicting effect that can change the circumstances of the encounter. It’s one thing to know that the giant we’re fighting deals a nasty amount of damage. It’s another when they can swing twice, then use a third action to attempt to knock another creature prone with a Dexterity save. This may change the party’s strategy and position, and the team may have to pivot rolls to best deal with this threat.
Of course, another simple solution is to just add more pieces to the board you control. While I think this may ultimately slow down play (as the DM has to now remember the actions and features of more than one creature), it can work to divide the party’s attention between multiple threats and give them more targeting choices than just the one big monster.
My favorite approach lies somewhere in the middle. Have one big monster with usually two attacks and some kind of spell/condition effect, then give them a bunch of minions to annoy the party. The more variables you add to the encounter, the more chances your players have to utilize situational spells and create memorable moments.
Tool #3: Changing Circumstances
This is a term I’ve used a bit throughout this post, but it does ring true. When we talk about dynamic combat, we’re literally talking about combat that changes and progresses. Oftentimes, high level encounters amount to facing enemies with a bevy of defenses and immunities, which encourages players to choose reliable damage dealing options because there’s virtually no chance for success.
Remember how I mentioned I hate Legendary Resistances? Well this final tool is what’s turned my combat encounters from predictable, stale damage slogs into dynamic and engaging puzzles. Circumstances change as the battles progress. By including puzzle pieces like damage vulnerabilities and resistances, players at my table know that by trying different options, there is new information to discover. Newly discovered information is a change to the battle’s structure. I’m also not above changing those static values we mentioned earlier due to logical happenstance. For example, if I present a stone golem with a high AC, but a caster uses an acid spell (a damage type that’s often ignored because of its lower damage output), then often I reason that the acid erodes the golem’s tough armor, and maybe even lowers its AC, making it easier for the martial characters to hit. And those legendary resistances? Each time my players deplete a creature’s hit points past certain thresholds, my legendary monsters lose their legendary resistances accordingly. Legendary resistances prevent legendary monsters from being defeated instantly due to a bad roll against a feeblemind or eyebite spell, but having those spells never work is just as boring. So by relegating those spells toward the end of the fight, it encourages my players to save their best spells for when the legendary monster is tired and hurt, and as such can’t use legendary resistances even if they haven’t used one all fight. I distinctly remember the collective cheer at the table when my player’s lowered by ancient dragon’s hit points below 25% maximum, and I told them it meant that there were no more legendary resistances left. It’s a celebratory moment that opens the possibilities to more dramatic endings to epic set piece encounters.
My last point for this section is that you can let your players know their choice mattered through mechanical change. For example, if your players are interested in having their social interaction mid-combat affect the enemy’s behavior, have your enemy choose their targets differently. If your player has a clever description or idea, introducing game elements that can get in the way of it succeeding discourages your player from pursuing such ideas in the future. Whether a certain line of thinking excites you or not, remember that how you rule situations mechanically determines the storytelling potential you allow for at your table. And there is nothing wrong with saying “No”.
There were a few tools within tools I mentioned here, and all of this may be overwhelming to take in at first. Do note that while this is a fairly comprehensive list of the factors I take into account when designing my encounters, this was by no means learned overnight. It was years of running encounter after encounter, including small changes over time that lead to this. Hopefully you’ve found something useful in these notes, and you might even find yourself coming back to them to slowly integrate different elements. The overarching theme is to pay attention to what energizes your players. I’ve run encounters of simple goblins with no real strategy and had my players have a blast, and I’ve run more complex encounters with players feeling like it wasn’t fair. Use what works for you and leave the rest. This is just what’s worked for me, and as I learn more, I’ll be sure to share that with you as well.
Study Hard, Play Hard
World-building. It’s a term that you’ll hear in a variety of contexts including literature, cinema, television series, video games, and our usual focus, Dungeons and Dragons. A lot of Dungeon Masters became Dungeon Masters because of the creative control they have over their own world, and a lot of players come to Dungeons and Dragons to relax into an immersive experience that combines the intricacies of careful craftsmanship and the thrill of spontaneous play. It’s a space that not only allows us to momentarily escape the troubles of our real lives, but also empowers us to confront those same troubles in a practiced and graceful way. That being said, if mishandled, worldbuilding can also be confusing, exclusionary, and at its worst prohibitive to a player’s enjoyment of a D&D experience.
Now I will be the last person to downplay the value of worldbuilding when crafting an immersive experience, but the prep work alone doesn’t contribute to immersion. Immersion is all about the delivery of intricate information you as the Dungeon Master have spent time carefully crafting, and when mishandled this can have a variety of less than ideal outcomes. Reserve too much information and it's easier for the players to resist immersing themselves in your vision. Ramble too much where the players don’t have the chance to make choices and interact, and they get bored. So what’s the solution?
In my experience, it all comes down to frequent and honest communication. Some players will be more interested in the world than others. Some players will have extremely detailed backgrounds while others are fine creating characters they learn about as they go. So let’s create a space where everyone wins, including you, the world-builder.
Let Your Players Create Too
Now I will admit, my world building is nothing exceptional. I have little interest and skill in crafting highly specific settings with complex layers of intrigue and novel ideas that keep my players guessing. Most of my interesting world-building concepts are rearranged ideas from other sources (but then again, isn’t all art?). So this is a little tip that has gone a long way for me.
My players often create locations, home towns, and points of interest in their back stories that become focal points for a campaign. For example, in my latest game, I had a player create a town next to a forest of fairies. Boom. In the game. This is probably the most direct way that a player can be included in the world-building process, and it doesn’t mean you have to forgo your boundaries for creating your world. If that player mentions something about the world’s overall economy, or another major component you’ve thought through, ask what they’re really trying to convey, and then ask if you can edit or include additional details that further integrates their setting more closely with the overall world you’re creating. You’re creating something together, just like the story you’ll spontaneously tell later on at the table.
Organizing A Reference Document
Now, it goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic caused many sudden shifts for many different people. In terms of D&D, this led to a shift of at-the-table play to online play, which led to my greatest discovery: Google Drive. And this in turn led to the greatest world-building tool I’ve ever had: the Google Doc. What this tool allows for is you, the Dungeon Master, to detail a world’s common knowledge to your heart’s content, as well as include homebrew rules and systems, with your players’ understanding that you can edit and expand on information you present.
With the shift from tabletop to online gaming, one of the biggest discoveries I’ve had about myself and my gaming preferences is how much I love storytelling in gaming, and how my focus on mechanical understanding was to deliver the story I wanted to tell on my terms, without the DM telling me my idea didn’t fit what the book said. So when I sit down to DM games in my latest world, I view my players as storytelling contributors that write for their own characters, and I want them to have every tool imaginable.
So, I started with a Setting Reference Document (not to be confused with 5e’s SRD, which is a whole different can of worms). The Setting Reference Doc includes a gazetteer (in the fashion of Eberron: Rising from the Last War or Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount) with brief descriptions of the major regions that any character would reasonably know about. For an analogue to our real world, you don’t need a Harvard education to know that England has a Queen and Japan had warriors in its history named samurai. By elaborating on a few key iconic details from each region of the world, it gives each player a sense of what the overall world is like, as well as decide where their character hails from.
Once they make that decision, it’s time for a one-on-one conversation with each player. While every player knows the information in the living document about each region, I give each individual player more specific information about their home region, that they are free to share with other players (or not). This is how you create complex systems of character information without making it feel as if the DM is gating information from everyone. Each player has a little more information in one area than the others, and it allows them to express unique perspectives on different situations as the party dynamics mature and develop.
The key concept here is conversation. It’s not about hiding things from your players. It's about giving them the proper tools to allow themselves to immerse themselves into your world and ask better questions to drive the story. This happens by communicating what you want, and listening to how they communicate what they want. And it's not going to be perfect each time, but the more you respect the angle they’re taking with their character, and rewarding that with exclusive details about your world, the more trust they’ll have in you to take them through an immersive and rich experience.
Nuts and Bolts Tip: If you’re planning on using a Google Doc to communicate your world-building, expectations, or other homebrew systems, make sure you’re the only one who can edit it and the players you invite to view it are commenters. You don’t want one of your players to accidentally delete all of your hard work.
Now, I’ve played in plenty of games where I’ve really thought through the world building process. However, in the heat of the game, not every player is going to pick up on every little detail you describe, and some may not even interpret the same detail the same way. By having your world-building details written down and accessible to your players, your players can clarify details with each other. If they remember a location but don’t remember its name, they can look it up. If they hear the name of something, and they know if they’ve heard it before, they can look it up. And if your players discover secrets about the world they’re characters may not have known before, you as the DM can always update the document to contain the most detailed information all players would reasonably have access to.
There’s a certain beauty in being able to say “look it up in the doc” or “you can find it in the doc”. And just to clarify, this isn’t intended as a punishment, or a “gotcha!” It just empowers your players to create compelling characters using details you’ve provided them so that they can respect the work you’ve put in while creating unique characters that allow them to express themselves. Everyone wins.
As a DM, I’ve forgotten details. As a player, I’ve forgotten details. As a player, I’ve seen a DM forget details, and then try to scramble to pretend that they didn’t. And this situation only gets messier if none of it is written down. It gets even messier if a player wrote it down, and the DM tries to cover their butt by saying they misinterpreted or wrote it down wrong, creating tension with that player.
If anything, not only does a living document organize your thoughts and creations into a useful tool, it also keeps everyone at the table accountable. If a player tries to say they didn’t understand something you’ve made abundantly clear, other players are empowered to help you adjudicate. If you’ve made a mistake, other players have something you’ve written to keep you on track. I’ve found ever since implementing a living document detailing my world, my players have felt that I’ve been more accountable in delivering a quality experience, which has actually led to more trust in my judgment. Fear of accountability is a symptom of doubt in ability. The DM that fears accountability or being called out for a misruling they’ve laid the precedent for is one that tends to be more interested in maintaining an unbalanced power dynamic than one that’s interested in crafting the most quality experience for everyone, including themselves.
And ultimately, this is our goal. When your players are included in your thought process, imagination, and creativity, they become more interested in the little things that make your world yours. And that leads to their investment and ultimately their immersion. It’s okay to hold onto some secrets about your world for your players to discover. In fact, it’s encouraged. However, it's a whole other thing to get them to care about the secrets your world holds that they can discover. And the best way I’ve found to get players to care about your world is to make them a part of it, from its design to its play at the table.
When you present your document, I recommend running it as part of a session zero. Explain your expectations, variant game mechanics and why they’re more appropriate to the style of game you’re going for, then dive into the nitty gritty. Where are the players going to go? What races can they play, and do they conform or differ from the traditions set by the PHB? What are the problems in each region, and how could they fit into a character’s story?
A great tool to ignite a player’s imagination while character building is the ten question exercise I posed in the previous Study Hall post. If you can ground the players in the world, while also having a consistent resource for information you freely give, and give them exclusive information based on the choices they make at character creation, you present far more investment into your world, and they begin to actually care about it. That’s what increases immersion. And that’s what makes D&D so magical.
Study Hard, Play Hard
My wife and I love Star Trek.
We have for a long time, in our separate lives, and it was strangely a new discovery for the both of us as we were surfing the Netflix and Prime catalogues seeking to scratch that interstellar itch.
She began expositing on the 2009 reboot, which we were searching for, but unwilling to pay for at the time, and I chimed in on my love for Star Trek: Generations, despite how "meh" it's aged over the years. My favorite of the TNG run was always First Contact (#8 in the classic run, and #2 with the TNG crew), but I was quite pleased with the 2009 reboot.
And so...we seem to be working through a bunch of Star Trek films, rewatching old loves of cinema, and poking fun at them through a modern lens. Some stack up better than others, standing the test of time through snappy writing, strong dialogue, and some kick-ass music. In fact, that's something the 2009 Star Trek had going for it, more so than many other films that came out at the same time.
It felt like something familiar and nostalgic, despite its shiny lens-flaring new model. This effect, for those of us listening intently, was no accident. Composer Michael Giacchinno sculpted the entire soundtrack as a rising action and resolution into the original TV series theme by Alexander Courage. And the theme is heard all over the place! If one isn't careful, one might assume it's being beaten over your head, but it never feels that way. Giacchino skillfully explores the musical theme in various styles to fit the action and setting; sometimes its reverent chordal structures, other times bombastic horns and strings, sometimes just a haunting choir. It is masterfully done.
And this immersive element, coupled with great cinematography, wonderful sound design, strong characters, and excellent story beats...makes you happily overlook the moments in the story where the YouTube-critic in us all would nit-pick the hell out of it. Yes, why wasn't Vulcan already evacuating? Yeah, how the heck does Earth not have ships or planetary defenses engaging Nero? Why do the Romulans look so weird?
Still. I'm down to watch it again, and I've listened to its musical score hundreds of times.
Which got me thinking.
Film was, for many, the natural evolution of the theater. And the theater was our first great lesson in IMMERSION.
Imagine, for a moment, entering a theater with a stage that protrudes into the audience. You settle into your seats and talk amongst yourselves, perusing the program that has just been handed to you. On its front, in brilliant stylized lettering, you find the words, "The Phantom Of The Opera". Scanning the cast, you find familiar names, and new ones; some leads, some barely mentioned - perhaps you skip to the back and read up on a few. Somewhere under the stage, in a pit below, an errant violin tunes its strings, poised to play; you listen a moment longer before turning back to the program in your lap. Beyond the title, you are presented with an act structure, and, if it's a musical, the song order and who sings it. You are given the entire story's structure, framing, and resolution in a tight little package at the onset - yet there's still such an electricity in the air. This is a LIVE performance.
The lights dim, and two actors take the stage as the curtain slowly rises, revealing a destroyed and dilapidated set. A fallen chandelier rests in the center of the stage, rubble and ruin surrounding it. The two actors, well-dressed businessmen, discuss an upcoming auction and of the terrible accident that ended this theater's life. The two actors leave as the room grows darker, all eyes on the chandelier. A chill wind rolls across the stage, distant thunder booming somewhere outside. And then, you hear it.
Wind swirls around the rubble, the rocks and stone moving and shifting back into place. Lanterns and torchlight flicker to life surrounding the stage, a brilliance returning to the space. And then, the chandelier...RISES, as light flows across its crystalline visage. The stage turns back in time, drawing you in to the time before, transporting you to this story. The music, the visuals, the sounds, the smells, everything draws you to this singular moment.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what they call an Overture.
The Death Of The Overture
An Overture is not unheard of in film. In fact, under the synonym "Opening Titles", was utilized by a multitude of film, especially those in the 90s. It was a clear and effective way to draw in your audience.
The first, and probably most iconic, overture that springs to mind...is Superman.
And who better to usher in the 1978 classic than the immortal John Williams. The guy is a masterclass in the Overture.
But what is the musical purpose of an Overture?
Well, in a stage production, it would fall into one of two categories: A Medley - showing off segments of all of the musical cues and leitmotifs you're about to experience in broader forms; or an Opening Number - a lead-in to the first big showstopping number. In film...that still happens. Star Wars is a great example of the "Opening Number" - we get the iconic theme, the text crawl, and we're into the opening scene and off running. Here, though, we are instead treated to a Medley of sorts; an extended version of the hero's theme with elements intertwined that highlight other cues in the film.
Two others fall into this framework. One, more like Superman, with a reverence and patience to its Overture, and the other with a sharp cue that pulls us directly into the opening scene, and both have beautifully stood the test of time in my memory. Let me share them with you.
Listening to these again, even after all this time, is truly an arresting experience. It quiets me. Reminds me of the sheer power and beauty of the aesthetic. Just shut up and LISTEN to that. Put your damn phone down, and listen; be drawn into this world.
And this wasn't a rare thing. I'm not that old, and yet I've watched this trend evolve, change, and steadily die. Films nowadays hold little reverence for their music, despite soundtracks being lauded. Musicians are given little time to construct a great score, and I wonder sometimes what it must be like in this modern age of speed and satisfaction to know that your audience can't seem to give you the time of day for the next few minutes so you can flex something beautiful.
And yet, we still crave it. I wonder if this immersive novelty is one of many reasons that has ensnared me with the art of cooperative storytelling. Why so many of my campaigns have evolved to support and explore deep social, emotional encounters as opposed to fast action. How so many crave the rich lore that surrounds them and beg for just another moment inside their imaginary world.
The Overture At The Table
We as gamers and masters draw each other into our collective imaginations; it is no small part of what makes this powerful hobby so rewarding. To join together in collective reverence and immersion, all in pursuit of creating a more satisfying and rewarding experience, is one of the greatest feats a table can achieve.
But that respect for each other, and your game master, is paramount.
We can set up a practiced intro crawl, different voices to set the mood, cool music to set the tone, but we need the PLAYERS to come along for the journey. And if you are a player that struggles with this; if you find yourself bored or distracted, itching for that phone or that desktop or that next round of Fall Guys...I challenge you to slow down.
I challenge you:
Walk into that theater. Sit down. Allow yourself to be drawn slowly into something magical. And when that first cue hits, ride it all the way down the rabbit hole. You might be surprised what you'll find when you allow yourself to really feel something special.
Now pick up your sword and your favorite Drink Me. The musicians are tuning their instruments...the show's about to start.
See you at the table.
PS: One more for the road. ;)
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, amateur bartender, and aspiring fiction author.
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