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. ;)
When you play Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons long enough (especially from the DM side of the screen), you’ll start to notice some patterns in the game’s design. The most powerful magic items always bestow no more than a +3 bonus to attack and damage rolls. You almost never see the upper limit of a player’s ability score go above 20, and even from monsters they cap at an absolute ceiling of 30. No matter how many numbers you try to stack, there’s a limit to how high you’ll get your attack bonus to hit and how many hit points your character can build to. So why limit these numbers? What’s the difference between the bounded accuracy model of 5e and the treadmill model of Pathfinder? Which one is preferable, and what is the upside and downside of each?
First, let’s dive into the term “Bounded Accuracy”. Like I stated earlier, no matter how savvy you are character building, your bonus to hit can only be so high. In 5e, the upper limit to a reasonable player’s bonus to hit is fairly standard, and the upper limit to a creature’s armor class also tends to be set. Heck, even Tiamat, a literal god in Faerun, has an Armor Class of 25, meaning that anything with a higher AC has a higher AC than a god. What this does is give even lower level creatures a reasonable chance to hit a much higher level creature, even if that chance lowers with a wider power gap. It means with favorable luck (and tactics), even a lower level party can potentially defeat a much greater enemy.
Let’s compare this to the “treadmill effect” of similar d20 systems. For example, in Pathfinder, certain creatures can have ACs in the upwards of 40s, and the system rewards mathematically minded players to combine as many features as possible to create a statistically superior character with the right choices. What this ends up meaning is that a low enough level character has virtually no chance to hit a creature with a wide enough power gap. A goblin just plain won’t hit a player of a high enough level with a high enough AC. And while Pathfinder has a bevvy of conditional modifiers a clever player can take advantage of in order to close that statistical gap with careful planning, ultimately the odds are still stacked against the lower level combatant.
So let’s look at the pros of a treadmill model first. It rewards players with an exhaustive understanding of the rules (given that your table is playing by the rules-as-written, which most Pathfinder games I’ve heard tend to do) and by making optimized characters. Of course, the cons are that the encounters that a Game Master can use are bounded in scope. At one point, if the minions of one tier are no longer valid threats, they have to use minions of an appropriate tier. The minions have to keep up with the players, which may feel forced or may not make sense in the context of the world.
The pros of a Bounded Accuracy model like D&D are that the numbers tend to be simpler. Rather than having players focus on mechanical advantages they can leverage to statistical superiority, a bounded accuracy model brings the focus of play to description and effects, and although numbers are relevant, oftentimes it's the qualities and conditions of the pieces in play that make D&D combat engaging. A goblin has the possibility of hitting a 20th level player character in 5e, meaning they can still present a threat in high numbers or if they get to attack with advantage. The con of course, is that players that use quantities to measure their character’s power may not be rewarded for optimizing their character. After all, especially when using standard arrays, there are only so many “optimized” builds you can create in 5e’s system.
In his series Happy Fun Hour, Mike Mearls once said that “the more small choices you give players when making a character, the more small schisms in power you’re creating”. To find evidence of this, look no further than 5e’s Feat system in comparison to Pathfinder. In Pathfinder, feats are small bonuses to your character you get every other level (at least from what I can remember, I have a very obvious bias here). In 5e, Feats are larger packages of benefits you get every fourth level, meaning that 5e characters usually only get five opportunities to customize their characters in this way. These larger choices mean that the schisms in power are also less in number, and more importantly, more obvious. I’ve had plenty of conversations with Pathfinder enthusiasts that to make some character concepts work, there is a specific chain of feats needed. While some may argue it exists in 5e, the need is far smaller.
So Why Do We Care?
Great question. I mean, like I say in most of these, it’s the question to end all questions.
My answer is that understanding the design process behind a game system allows the adjudicator of that system (in this case the Dungeon Master) to deliver an experience with greater skill and information. If a DM understands that only the most powerful creatures of a realm have an AC of 25, it gives them a reference on how strong a creature they create is in relation to the party in a more meaningful way. If a DM wants to create custom content, including magic items, subclasses, or custom features, they know how to balance that content in relation to the system.
As silly as it sounds, creating a +4 magic weapon in 5e actually breaks the system, whether you agree with it or not. It breaks the upper limit of the Bounded Accuracy model the system is intentionally designed with, and if you try to fix this break with stronger monsters, then you risk changing to the treadmill model of Pathfinder, and the focus of the game changes.
Bounded Accuracy exists so that players will actually think less about the game’s math and more about the game’s story. 5e’s mechanics are intentionally simple and flexible to allow DMs to deliver custom, satisfying experiences to their players. The mechanics are a tool, not the experience, and by understanding the design process, it empowers a DM to create their own custom content to deepen their world without breaking the system that’s been so elegantly crafted for them.
That isn’t to say you should never mess with rules or purposely break your own system to deliver a specific experience: it just means if you break the rules, you’re doing so intentionally with knowledge of some of the consequences of doing so. I’ve played with +4 and +5 weapons before, and it leads to disastrous power gaps that invalidate the stories of other party members. (Now putting such abilities on some kind of charge mechanic…)
So that’s all I have to say on Bounded Accuracy for now. Hopefully this gives y’all something to chew on, especially for the creative DMs out there.
Study Hard, Play Hard
Let's take a quick look at a lovely little game of sanity, horror, and the cosmos.
Call Of Cthulhu has had a long, satisfying run, and though the major mechanics have pulled away from the influences of 4th edition and Pathfinder (like COC D20) in favor of more nuanced D100 play, the theming and expectations have stayed consistent.
Let's get one thing out of the way immediately: this is not a game of HEROES.
In fact, so much of what we see in play and in its surrounding lore supports and reinforces the idea that each of us, though a cut above the average human and exceptional in some way, are just regular people. And with that, subject to mental breakdowns, psychic attack, possession, and a quick, gruesome death. We are squishy, delicate bags of flesh just doing their best against forces we have little knowledge of.
This is ELDRITCH HORROR. Dark shadows, tentacle beasts, unexplained occult, and the energy of grasping at the very edge of understanding - just enough to be able to act - in the face of very likely doom.
And anyone who plays this game, KNOWS THAT. They know they might get decapitated if they take a wrong turn and roll badly; they know that their character's life is inconsequential to the grand scheme of the universe, and they're here for it. This is a game of atmosphere, immersion, PROPS, and cosmic horror.
So, noting the fact that I am alone in my den while my wife is at work pondering about my singular not-hero in a cosmic horror dystopia without the help of a Keeper (the GM)...I still find the best way to begin understanding a system is to comb through and make yourself an adventurer! ...I mean...INVESTIGATOR!
This is not your daddy's D&D. Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition utilizes 8 "pools" of specific characteristics for your Investigator, plus a Luck attribute. Each one is generated *a little* differently, but each one will use some combination of rolling some D6's and multiplying by 5.
We'll take a look at each one while we generate it:
STRENGTH (STR) - 3d6 x 5
My roll: 15 x 5 = 75
Strength is tied to one's athleticism and ability in hand-to-hand combat. Pretty straightforward.
CONSTITUTION (CON) - 3d6 x 5
My roll: 12 x 5 = 60
Constitution is your health, vigor, and vitality. Your resilience to injury, poison, and attack.
SIZE (SIZ) - 2d6+6 x 5
My roll: 9 + 6, 15 x 5 = 75
Size...worries me. It is supposed to represent height and weight as a single number, the higher it is, the bigger you are? Can...can creatures reduce that score? (Probably)
DEXTERITY (DEX) - 3d6 x 5
My roll: 11 x 5 = 55
Dexterity is what you think it is. Agility, coordination, flexibility, and quickness.
APPEARANCE (APP) - 3d6 x 5
My roll: 16 x 5 = 80
Appearance can be equated to one's "charisma" score, carrying with it both one's physical attractiveness and personality.
INTELLIGENCE (INT) - 2d6+6 x 5
My roll: 6+6, 12 x 5 = 60
Think of Intelligence in this case as a combination of Int and Wisdom; investigative ability, remembering and sorting information, and solving puzzles.
POWER (POW) - 3d6 x 5
My roll: 16 x 5 = 80 (woot!)
Your Power score also creates your Sanity score (at least for now!), so I feel good. Power, unlike Strength, is your force of Will. It's your mental fortitude and presence; personal, intrinsic, even mystical, power.
EDUCATION (EDU) - 2d6+6 x 5
My roll: 10+6, 16 x 5 = 80 (yay, I think)
Education is your book knowledge and level of, well, education! Higher the score, the more educated you are.
LUCK (Luck) - 3d6 x 5 (though later in the text it says roll 3d6 x 5...weird)
My roll: 8 x 5 = 40 (oops!)
Luck is used in the game to alternate the fickle hands of fate. Looks like I'm none too lucky.
What My Numbers Mean
Well above average strength, and approaching "one of the strongest people you've ever met."
Slightly above average healthy human.
Pretty tall and strongly built.
Average human. Sigh.
Exceedingly charming human.
Slightly above average human intellect.
Strong willed, driven, and possessing a high potential to sense and connect with the unseen and magical.
Master's degree held, and a Bachelor's to boot!
Unfortunately, we now make adjustments based on our Investigator's age. I'll keep mine around 35 to keep it simple. According to the chart, I need to make an Improvement Check on my Education, meaning I need to roll 1d100. If I roll higher than my current EDU score, I get to roll a D10 and add that to my EDU. My roll: 29. Guess I took a year off to get exceedingly handsome.
DAMAGE, BUILD, and HP
We add our STR and SIZ scores together first: 150
My Damage gets a +1d4 bonus, and my Build gets a +1.
If I add my CON and SIZ scores together (135), then divide by 10 and round down, I get my Hit Points!
...Remember what I said about being squishy?
There are a few other derived statistics, but let's keep going.
Now it's time to figure out my class! Yes! The best part...the best...
Right. This isn't going to work the same way, is it?
Not in the slightest! Let's go!
An Investigator's Occupation isn't their class, like in D&D. In fact, there's nothing of the sort. COC isn't a game about level progression or powerful features or capstone abilities. It's a dark, horror fantasy that is all about personal, terrifying storytelling.
The Occupation determines what Characteristics grant you Skill Points (for allocation), Credit Rating (more on that later), Suggested Contacts based on that Occupation, and the 8 skills that define the Occupation. There's an extensive list, and it's not even close to complete or comprehensive, because you're invited to MAKE YOUR OWN Occupation based on the time period you're operating in.
Because I don't know what I'm doing, I'll just pick a Diver.
Skill Points are your EDU x 2 + DEX x 2
My Skill Points: 110+160, so 270 (yay?)
Credit Rating: 9-30
Contacts: law enforcement, smugglers, coast guard
Skills: Diving, First Aid, Mechanical Repair, Pilot (boat), Science (Biology), Spot Hidden, Swim, and one specialty.
Allocating Skill Points
This is where I need to stop and ask some questions.
Do you only have access to skills tied to your Occupation, or can you take a skill not on your list?
--- You can take skills not connected to your Occupation. These are Personal Interest Skills and whose points are derived from your INT score x 2 (so 120 for me).
What is the benefit between Occupation skills and "untrained" skills? Can you even do a thing untrained?
--- Seems that I add the additional "percentages" to skills that have my Occupation? Unfortunately, it seems the RAW is particularly vague on this, despite it's apparent mechanical lynchpin importance! It clears up a few things by offering an anecdotal walkthrough, but why didn't they have that in the actual workflow of the rulebook?
For now, I'll place my points in what I know well, and allocate my personal ones in some sick brawling and knife fighting skills. As a diver, I'd assume I'd know how to at least defend myself against an eel or two, right?
Backstories and Equipment
Personal descriptions and backstories can be decided randomly by rolling on tables, or just used for inspiration. Here you decide your ideologies, people and locations significant to you, treasured possessions, traits, and any other backstory connections.
After that, your Credit Rating comes into play to give you an idea of overall wealth and lifestyle, also letting me equip a few things, but not much I need to go into here. I've got the important stuff, and after that it's up to my Credit Rating to explain away certain expenditures. Just like any other value in the game, it's something you roll for.
And That's Part One...
With my Investigator made, the next step is to deep dive and put the little sucker into practice. I am very much a kinesthetic learner, so experience goes a long way in amplifying a system and understanding it on my terms.
I'd apologize for the cliffhanger, but I don't actually care. ;)
“You remember the Deal we made, right? You would give me the power to be free of my oppressors, and in return, I would smite those who defied your calling. My Vow is still ironclad, and I hear your Commandments. Mother Night, Mother Night, by the call of your Moonlight. I am here to rectify the evil deeds of those that spread horrific Blight. I will become a monster in others’ Sight, and with your Grace the Shadows grant me Flight.”
That’s the back story of a character I’ve been role-playing in a game that started as a spontaneous pick-up game with a few players toward the start of Quarantine. So, I ask you, based on this text alone, which class am I playing? And no, it’s not a multiclass. It’s a single class build, using some Unearthed Arcana material, but even so I could build the same character without the UA.
I’ll give you another second. Ready?
Is it a Warlock? Maybe. After all, the text references a “Deal”, which is a common term used in warlock back stories involving Pacts.
Is it a Paladin? Maybe. Apparently this character made a capital-V Vow, a role-playing feature of Paladins included in every one of their subclasses.
Maybe it’s a Cleric? Commandments are a common characteristic of Pantheons in D&D worlds, which are highlighted in the latest official product, Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount.
Maybe it’s a different character entirely. Still curious?
The answer is…drum roll please…option number 3! This text describes a Cleric, an agent of the lesser deity Mother Night who calls upon the Domain of Twilight to grant flight while in darkness. Are the other options wrong? Certainly not. All of the other classes I mentioned fit the story I wanted to tell, and there were even some classes I didn’t mention that might have also fit the bill. Shadow sorcerer, Shadow monk, even maybe a Fighter that had a religious element to their story. The thing that made me choose Cleric though was its play style.
Recognizing Play Style
Each turn in combat, a player can choose how to use their action, movement, and possibly a bonus action. Here, play style refers to how each character class makes the most out of those options, and also what a character’s player needs to keep in mind to make the most of their class features and spells.
For example, a rogue player tries to make the most out of each attack every turn, because, unlike other martial classes, they don’t get an extra attack when they take the Attack action. However, if the right conditions are met, a rogue can sneak attack, and a single hit can deliver damage more efficiently than any other martial class (key word, efficiently). So, a rogue player pays attention to which enemies have a hostile creature next to them to know which creatures would take the most damage from their one attack. Then, they can use their bonus action to get out of dodge and reposition for their next turn.
A monk on the other hand can make a free unarmed strike as a bonus action, given that they’ve attacked with a monk weapon or unarmed strike already that turn. While a monk can reposition as its bonus action, there’s a ki cost that goes with it, so it usually is more efficient to double down on attacking the nearest creature. And, while a rogue only gets one attack that can deal a lot of damage to a single target, a monk has a lot of chances to hit, but the damage of each hit is much less by comparison.
This comparison is an example of a difference in play style. Both classes are regarded as mobile, Dexterity-based characters that can move easily around a grid and roll high on initiative. However, what each player needs to be effective, as well as what they prioritize, are going to be different. Rogues are team dependent; they need an ally willing to be within melee range of their target to be effective. Monks are great initiators; while they don’t need an ally to let off their flurry of attacks, each attack may also land a stunning strike, which by its namesake inflicts the Stunned condition on the target and potentially setting up the rogue’s sneak attack.
Which is the last little nugget of wisdom I’ll leave in this section: as valuable as it is to recognize play style, it’s even more valuable to recognize the play style of your fellow party members so you can all play off of each other.
Earlier, I wrote a blog post on the Four Roles you typically find in a D&D party. To recap, you’ve got:
-Tank: Someone who draws an enemy's attention and can take damage
-DPR: Someone who can efficiently and reliably deal damage
-Support: Someone who heals and empowers allies
-Control: Someone who compromises the decision-making power of opponents
When we talk about each class’s play style, we’re also talking about the category of role your decision falls under. Roles aren’t something that’s static to a character. Often, they’re a turn by turn decision you’re making for the party’s benefit.
A rogue sneak attacks an enemy: DPR decision.
Same rogue uses their action to administer a healing potion: Support decision.
Now some classes do this more efficiently than others, and have garnered a reputation of fulfilling certain roles well. But a class isn’t defined by its reputation or story, but by the concrete choices it gives its player to interact with the game state.
So Why Do We Care?
The question to end all questions. Let’s bring it back to the above example. Oftentimes, I hear DMs and fellow players give character-building advice through incomplete ideas. If we look at the character example I started this post with, I can already hear the voices of individuals I know that would say, “Well it has to be (insert opinion here)”. And the question I always ask is, “Does it have to be?”
While this may belabor a point I made earlier, one way to look at a class is by the concrete choices it grants you, not its prescribed lore. Do you want to have gained your powers through a Deal? Sounds like a Warlock to me! But maybe you don’t want to just cast eldritch blast again and again. Maybe your pact granted you supernatural auras and the ability to channel energy through your sword. With this perspective, paladin would probably be a better option.
The reason we care is because we want to tell the story we want to tell, and the mechanics we’re offered by our class are the expression of that story. We’re looking for the marriage of the story we want to tell with the mechanics that let us tell that story. Sometimes, that marriage is found in an unlikely place. You tell the story usually given to a warlock through the mechanics of a chain-smoking cleric recovering from trauma. Sometimes, the story of an aspiring entertainer is told through the mechanics of a warlock.
If you’re like me and love to help new players discover the wonder of D&D, I urge you to keep this mind. Listen to what they want their character to do, not the backstory of where their character came from. If they want to fight like a hardened warrior, guide them to a class that lets them be a hardened warrior. If they want to fight cleverly with a bow, offer them the classes that have a bow (and how to understand the differences between them).
Each Class's Schtick
Now, to conclude this little segment, I’ll just lay out what each class does most efficiently and one of their weaknesses. These are little blurbs, not all encompassing descriptions. We’re also posting further breakdowns of each of these classes on our YouTube channel (DM Shower Thoughts, go subscribe now), so if this kind of stuff tickles your fancy go check it out. Without further ado, here we go:
Barbarian – Great tank, melee DPR, and very survivable, not great at all ranges
Bard – Great single target support, Single target healing, most offensive spells are Wisdom saving throws (kind of limiting)
Cleric – Excellent ability to pivot from Support to Control to DPR, not the most efficient healers but they have healing options
Druid – Excellent healers and controllers, set up allies very well, not very good DPR
Fighter – Spammable, short rest abilities, easy to understand, can be outperformed by other classes in a similar specialty
Monk – Great movement and single target control, very independent, not as good DPR as you’d think
Paladin – Excellent passive support with auras, competitive damage with smites, not great at all ranges
Ranger – Oof, What are they good at? (Kidding), Competitive DPR, great support and control options, many iconic abilities are too situational
Rogue – The DPR class. Like the most consistent one. Great action economy, but it does need a team that acts like a team to work right
Sorcerer – Efficient and flexible action economy, limited by their spells known
Warlock – Eldritch Blast engines, lots of customization, even fewer spellcasting options than Sorcerer
Wizard – Lots of utility, support, control, and damage options. Squishier than French Fries left in the fridge
Artificer – The Support/Control master, maybe even more so than the Wizard. Extremely hard to manage and not for new players.
Well that’s my genius (?) breakdown of each class’s play style. Like I said, any mechanics of a class can be re-flavored to match the story in your head. The key thing is to understand how a class actually works in the context of 5e’s system, and then to tell the story of why it works that way. Play style and action economy can be abstract concepts to wrap your head around, but once you do, a whole new level to the D&D play experience reveals itself to you to enrich your games and your understanding of yourself and others. And after all, isn’t being our best self what we’re all about?
Study Hard, Play Hard
We’ve all been there. We’ve all been a Beginner at some point in our lives, and hopefully even as we navigate adulthood we’ll never lose the joyous curiosity that comes with the Beginner’s Mind. Whether it’s Benjamin Hoff describing the childlike wonder of the Uncarved Block in The Tao of Pooh or coming to Dungeons and Dragons for the first time, being a beginner is both a wondrous and terrifying place.
In terms of D&D, oftentimes a beginner’s expectations are colored by either the common (often reductive) portrayals of TTRPGs in mainstream media or assume the game functions in a way it doesn’t based on their experiences with RPG video games. This means a Dungeon Master has a monumental responsibility in guiding new players to discover the most out of their experience. After all, as a Dungeon Master, you may be the individual that’s responsible for how someone views tabletop role-playing as a whole, and a bad experience can sour someone’s taste for years or possibly their whole life. And while that may sound a little dramatic, it’s not outside the realm of possibility. So my question is, what are they going to walk away with? Are they going to bask in the sheer creative possibility this space provides? Are they going to discover something new about themselves through the characters they portray? Are they going to go on and become a Dungeon Master in their own right, and be empowered to tell their own stories when all is said and done? How are you going to introduce them to this grand, sometimes overwhelming new world?
Now as with all responsibilities, you will make mistakes. That’s what this game is all about: how we deal with both failure and success. After all, it’s what the d20 represents. The best laid plans could fail and the most cockamamie of schemes can succeed. How you handle these mistakes and your tolerance to forgive others will set the standard for how others are expected to behave, and also set the mood for the new player you’ve invited to your table.
Before we proceed, I do have a small disclosure. If you’re a new DM, be kind to yourself. Like I said, you’re human and you’ll make mistakes. If it’s not in your rulings, it’ll be with handling the passionate personalities you’re bound to attract playing this kind of game. If you’re a new player, don’t sweat the small stuff. Most people are playing to tell a great story (which doesn’t necessarily mean structured or coherent), and forgetting how bonus actions work or forgetting that random racial feature that grants you advantage on saving throws against poison isn’t going to make or break a game. Come to this experience with respect and empathy, and you’ll create a culture of trust where everyone can have fun.
There are also a lot of soft skills I can’t teach through text like this. They come through experience and learning from the mistakes you will make along the way. The kind of actionable advice I can give has to do with creating an environment that reduces resistance to learning what D&D is all about. Through my experience, I’ve found that the easiest way to introduce a new player to D&D is what we’ve coined the Rule of Three: have a three hour one-shot session with characters built to 3rd level that touches on all three pillars of play.
Now I’ve introduced a lot of new players to D&D, and as I write this, I’m reflecting on every time I’ve DM’d a game with a new player, and whether or not their experience would have been enhanced by this simple setup. I’ve thankfully never had a game where I’ve turned off someone from TTRPGs (at least to my knowledge), but I do wonder how a new player’s experience could have been deepened if I approached it with these three conditions.
One more time, if a list is easier to visually process, here are the three parameters:
1. Plan for a three hour one-shot session
2. Have everyone build or play 3rd level characters
3. Include all three pillars of play
A Three Hour One-Shot
The bane of most regular D&D games is scheduling. The more people in the party, the more powerful the scheduling demon becomes and the more likely the game will stagnate and end. This is also why I’ve included this suggestion first. If a new player can’t commit to at least a three hour session, then the likelihood they’ll experience any meaningful play is reduced. That being said, I’ve also experienced games that go WAY too long. A six or seven hour session can be brutal to players (depending on their personality), and asking everyone to block out that amount of time can be prohibitive to some individuals based on their life schedule.
So if you’re a DM, plan for a three hour one-shot. Even if your usual group is in the middle of a long running campaign, it’s okay to take a break with a one shot to introduce a new player (especially if they’re friends with your usual play group). Three hours includes enough time to experience the three pillars of play (one pillar per hour) and for the party to have meaningful interactions with itself or the world.
As this is a one-shot, I would plan for the session to resolve itself before its conclusion. Plan a rough beginning, middle, and end, with wiggle room for if things go awry. After all, that’s what D&D is all about.
A 3rd-Level Character
Level 3 has a certain magic to it in 5e’s design (pun intended). Every character class is guaranteed to have a subclass feature by that level, every character has enough hit points to reduce the chances of a one hit KO, and spellcasters have enough spell slots to play with lower level spells and feel the power their class has to offer. Every character class also gets most of their distinctive features by 3rd level, and most have access to their full action economy. It’s a great place to learn and play without the fear of instant death on a wrong choice.
When it comes to creating a new player’s first character, I would sit down and build the character with them. This way, you know what to expect from their character’s features and how you might adjudicate them, rather than being blindsided by a rule you’ve forgotten and potentially taking time away from their first three hour session.
In terms of ability scores, I’m partial to using an ability score array (especially for a new player), and having that boundary with every player participating in the one shot. This way, the new player won’t feel over or underpowered based on sheer luck at character creation. Everyone starts with the same array, evening the playing field.
When it comes to picking race, class, and background, let the new player make the final choice, but remember that you’re there to clarify what those choices are without overwhelming them. Do they want to play an effective archer? Fighter, Ranger, or Rogue can all work. Do they want to be a nature lover that casts healing magic? Druid may be an obvious choice, but there is Nature Cleric if they want it. Do they want to be tough and sturdy? They may be leaning toward a dwarf or half orc for the race, which are different but share sturdiness as their common trait. In any of these cases, a 3rd level character will tap into the power of those choices and get a feel for the unique character they’ve made.
During this stage, I tend to offer choices found in the Player’s Handbook. While the supplementary material in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, Volo’s Guide to Monsters and so on is fun and interesting, it can be overwhelming to a new player just trying to build a dude that swings an axe. That being said, oftentimes I’ll have excited players that will do their homework and come to me asking about specific material they’re interested in playing.
“I’ve always wanted to play a khajit from Skyrim, and I think a tabaxi monk would be cool!”
Sure! For cases like this, the only other boundary I have is that we’ll stick to official material for this session. No homebrew or Unearthed Arcana allowed, because they may not give a representative experience of play.
The final great point about using 3rd level characters is that each class’s definitive action economy is present. 3rd level Rogues can attack as an action, and then disengage as a Bonus Action. A 3rd level Cleric can cast healing word before using their action to cast sacred flame (but not bless). A 3rd level Barbarian needs to remember to bonus action rage BEFORE going in for their reckless attack. Although they don’t yet have the best or most efficient features a class may offer, a new player will still understand the distinction between the classes much more clearly than with 1st level characters.
Three Pillars Of Play
Dungeons and Dragons is designed to take players through three different kinds of scenarios dubbed by WoTC as the “Three Pillars of Play”. These are Social Interaction, Exploration, and Combat, and gameplay becomes more structured as we move in that order. In order to have a holistic experience with 5e, a new player should experience all three of these pillars in one way or another.
The easiest should be Social Interaction. Whether haggling with a merchant or intimidating a goblin scout, social interaction tends to be less structured than the other two pillars. Sometimes mechanics come into play, such as through Charisma checks or conditions like charmed or frightened, but often times how a social interaction resolves is up to a player’s approach. Dialogue and role-play are the heart of this game for a lot of individuals, and it’s not unusual for a new player to gravitate toward the “talk our way out of this” approach rather than the “stab it until it dies” approach.
The middle ground of structure is Exploration. Now recently I’ve become acquainted with an up-and-coming YouTube channel called Dungeon Coach (you should seriously check him out and subscribe, he’s got some quality content). He described Exploration perfectly, which is as “encounters and puzzles”. Sometimes, this means discovering a new section or quality of an environment. Sometimes this means solving a riddle or putting clues together. There are many players who are enamored with the world building of D&D, and you may find that you have a new player that wants to explore every nook and cranny of the environment you’ve put them in. This curiosity can be well rewarded with new knowledge about the world, their current predicament, or through additional options they take advantage of in combat.
Combat is by far the most structured pillar of play, and time in the game world comes to a screeching halt when the DM cries “Roll for Initiative!” Combat in D&D is handled in rounds and turns, and on each turn each participant in the combat has only a few options they can choose before the next participant’s turn. Teaching a new player what they can and can’t do on their turn can be difficult, especially if you have a veteran group that tries to generate momentum in a fight’s flow.
One suggestion I’ve seen is having a small card describing what a creature can do with its action. It’s also likely that the player will have bonus actions available, which you can give them friendly reminders on (especially if you helped them build their character). I’ve even heard of DM’s giving players check boxes to remind them of when they’ve used certain parts of their turn, like Movement, an Action, Bonus Action, and maybe even a Reaction. You’ll find each player processes the structure of combat differently. Some need visuals, description, or something tactile they can manipulate (like a mini). No matter how they process information, just remember to be patient. They’re a beginner, and how you treat them as such will define your relationship as Player and DM for many games to come.
So now the game is over! The world has been explored, NPCs have been spoken with, and combat has resolved. The 3rd level characters have completed their adventure together, and everyone is packing up to leave.
Following up is just as important to the D&D experience as the set up, and the closer you can do it to the conclusion of the session the better. I’ve always found more specific questions to be more insightful as a DM. For example, asking which part they liked the best, or what their favorite moment was (as opposed to “Was it good?”). I’ll even go so far as to ask which class feature they liked the best, especially if they were a spellcaster that used several different options.
Asking questions like this will reveal a lot about who they are as a person and a player, and it will help clarify which style of game may suit them best. Sometimes, you may not even be the best DM for the job, but if you have a trusting enough network you can recommend someone who is. There have been plenty of times I get a hardcore role-player in one of my games whose looking for a structured epic narrative and I recommend them to Adamus, as my games tend to be on the sillier side (with some notable exceptions).
Sometimes you’ll have a player give a suggestion. My recommendation here is to be the gatekeeper to your own mind. Sometimes, their advice is well meaning but irrelevant. Sometimes their advice can make everyone’s experience more efficient and enjoyable. Some advice I got that I didn’t take was to make every natural 1 more of a disaster, for comedy. I didn’t like how it made me feel being on the receiving end as a player, so I don’t implement that as a DM even if my players are looking for it. If they want it so bad, they can describe something awful when they do roll a natural 1.
If you do take anything away from this theory crafting, what I would ultimately say is to pay attention to how the environment from play impacts your group’s experience. For a new player, these are the environmental conditions I’ve found to creating a fulfilling first session.
Study Hard, Play Hard.
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So my wife had to get her eyes dilated at the doctor today. No biggie, everything's fine, but it prompted her to experiment with her vision at a distance and threw on a random film on Netflix. What she picked is called Extraction. A film from 2015 starring Bruce Willis ("starring" is a little generous), Kellan Lutz (from Twilight), and Gina Carano (from so many films now).
And the experience was...irascible.
Context Is Key - What Is Extraction
Extraction is a film from 2015 (not to be confused with the superior Chris Hemsworth film from 2020 of the same name) about a spy (3 weeks from retirement of course) captured by a terrorist organization and how his son, Harry, teams up with an old flame from the CIA, Victoria, to find him. There's a little double cross, a few lazy car chases, some strange choices in cinematography, an entirely misaligned musical score, and a complete misuse in the majority of the cast. ...Especially Carano.
It's one thing to be a disappointing film. There are many that fulfill that category. But this one stuck with me in a deep way - a pain of missed opportunities and a wasted potential for, especially at this point, a well-established actress and powerful presence like Carano.
To understand where I'm going and how this all feeds into the GM's Corner, we need to take a look at a little film called Haywire.
MMA Champion and actress Gina Carano in 2011's Haywire.
Where Haywire (2011) Shines
Haywire is a low-budget action film with tight cinematography, great choreography that feels real, and a raw approach to an otherwise simple story. This is another film featuring trained agents in a military-type scenario and a female agent fighting against those that would entrap or frame her. The film, directed by Steven Soderbergh, is confident, visceral, and wholly satisfying, but there's one scene in particular that illustrates my point the best.
Mallory (Carano) and another character (played by the ever-suave Michael Fassbender) are moving through a hotel acting all cute and newlywed-like as they head back to their room. It's kind of adorable, even. But once the door closes, it's all business. The facade falls, and they're agents on a mission.
Fassbender throws the first punch, knocking Mallory down. The fight is intense, devoid of music, with long takes pushed out so you can see every punch, kick, grapple, and throw in all its glory. You forget immediately that this is a man and woman. These are two highly trained combatants trying their best to incapacitate, and probably, kill each other. At no point in the fight is a punch pulled or mercy given - it is a no-holds-barred drag out display of pure fighting ability. It reveals two extremely important things. 1) Mallory isn't invincible, in this fight and many more to follow. She gets BEAT UP in this movie. 2) Mallory is always capable. She gets knocked down, but gets right back up and adapts to her opponents, terrain, and dozens of other active factors; you can see the turning of the tide over the course of each fight, and it's a turn of skill, not plot armor. She uses her surroundings to startling effect, demonstrating an intelligence in battle and survivability. This is not a character who will let you win just because the script deems it so.
Where Extraction Misses The Opportunity Completely
I can think of two distinct moments where both my wife and I shouted at the screen. The director has fundamentally missed the mark in every possible way when handling the character.
SCENE ONE - Carano isn't allowed to fight
Setup: Victoria takes Harry to an old female friend/contact and they go to a club to locate a perp. The perp is a sleaze in every meaning, so Victoria makes out with her friend to get his attention. Perp calls her over and she convinces him to head to a private room.
Women can show off whatever they like however they wish. Their body, their choice. I'm not complaining about that.
No. I'm complaining about what follows, and it fails on so many levels I got physically angry at my television.
Victoria gets taken back to the penthouse suite in close quarters with their perp, and two other guards. At this point, I expect things to go south, but I'm not worried about her. And I'm not worried because of two things. 1) She's a CIA operative with specialized hand-to-hand combat training. She's been an agent longer than our male protagonist (who isn't an agent yet, has just been training for it). I expect her to handle herself pretty well here, because she should know what she's doing. 2) She's Gina-freaking-Carano, and I've seen her take out a staggering number of people in a wide assortment of mediums. And I'm not trying to typecast here; she's playing someone who can fight - I'm looking forward to the fight.
Meanwhile, Harry gets a tip that there's an assassin on his tail. He corners the guy in a bathroom and Victoria's cover is immediately blown before she can get any info. Victoria starts getting beat on by three men, thrown around the room in shots where you can't see anything, and Harry confronts the assassin in a "martial arts" brawl. This is where the problems start piling up.
We get to see Harry go brawling in a bathroom with an assassin (reminiscent of the superior bathroom brawl featuring Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill from Mission Impossible: Fallout), complete with cracking glass, burst pipes, and drenched fists...juxtaposed with Victoria getting choked and kicked on the floor. In fact, there are long takes of this testosterone-filled fight and then short takes of the female lead getting beat on. No disarming techniques, no creative grapples, no takedowns, no showcase of ANY of Carano's talents. NONE of the things I've come to expect and enjoy with seeing her on screen - she actually looks bored while being beat up.
The tide doesn't turn for her until Harry, the non-operative male protagonist, stops a punch and joins the fight. She had to be rescued by him, and that pisses me right off.
Why is it that female agents always seem to get into these difficult scuffles and need to be rescued, and the males just have to brawl it out? (I have always hated this trope)
And female violence, in many mediums, tends to have an air of femininity to it - in a bad way. Like instead of treating the female combatant as a threat, the violence toward them is pivoted to accentuate their gender somehow. Like they're treated as a "silly girl" and toyed with first, before being a target to be eliminated. They're thrown around, the face is avoided, they're choked and held down; they're somehow a woman first, threat second. Meanwhile, the men get to engage in big physical fights and be the capable combatant.
Even the way it's shot is strange. Harry gets wide angle shots that showcase his physicality, while Victoria gets close shots of her face, her body, and her dress. Do you see the difference yet?
The brawl continues to the dance floor with an awkward cut, and they approach the thugs side by side. Harry gets to punch some more, and FINALLY Victoria kicks someone (but she's fighting in a dress that doesn't allow a lot of movement - a fact that the CHARACTER directly opposed in dialogue, but was shut down), then gets grabbed from behind at gunpoint.
Now about this fool with the gun. He doesn't keep it on her; no, he waves the thing around like an idiot. I'm not a MMA fighter, but I do practice martial arts enough to see specific beats where a disarm can happen, and AGAIN, I was waiting for Carano - who is way more skilled than I will ever be (and a combat-trained agent would be) - to take one of those beats and wreck this fool. She never does. And it looks like she wants to.
In fact, Carano looks really uncomfortable in most of these scenes. Like, somehow, this state is very "unnatural" for her (he writes, knowingly staring into the Void). She stands there like a petrified flower in a cocktail dress - scared and confused. She is then dragged off and into a car, where she proceeds to do very little to change her circumstances other than alert Harry how to follow them (still smart, just not "physically capable").
Why am I mad?
Harry's not an agent. He's a man. Victoria IS an agent. She is a woman. Harry is free to play hero, Victoria is dragged off like a damsel, and NOT ONCE tries to fix that problem with her combat skills. Critic says: But she was stuffed in a car, Adamus, what is she supposed to do? Answer: the male protagonist was also stuffed into a car with four armed guards earlier in the film...and he fought his way out. Why can't she - the trained and tested operative with two guards? Their frame and role in the story is defined by their gender, not their skill set. How refreshing would it have been if not only had Victoria held her own (a fact that runs in line with her skill set), and Harry brawled his way through, but his lack of training gets him caught? OR both get to shine with both of their styles, but the INTELLIGENT villain outsmarts them by undermining their flaws, instead of victory being a contrivance?
There's a better story here, and Carano can tell it. Instead, she's sidelined for Lutz to shine, if for no other reason than "he's the main character." Hollywood. Stop writing people as bad at the job they're supposed to be good at just so the main character can be better. Write them all as good at their job, and elevate the stakes to match them. That's how you make memorable stories (another deep breath).
Scene Two - Why is Victoria even here?
After getting punched once in the car and therefore knocked out (with no bruise to tarnish her face), Victoria is strung up with ONE hand tied to a pipe. One. And she's standing on the ground with both feet. In a large, empty room (prime real estate for a good ole' fashioned fight scene).
Carano is a built individual; her physical prowess is poised for display. I have seen her hoist herself up EASILY with one arm; the lady has body control, excellent strength and power, and a keen understanding of leverage and choke holds. So I'm still holding on to hope that I'm going to see something cool.
She is unconscious for the majority of the last Act. When she does come to, she's alone in the room, and it cuts back to Lutz being stupid. By now I expect it to cut back to her breaking free, but no, she just hangs out some more. When a guard arrives, she instead uses her feminine wiles to "seduce" him to come closer to her (why does this EVER work in film?), and THEN does a decent take-down and breaks free (which she could have done before, and already have re-entered the story). I AM glad she got herself out, no rescuing here...however, as a director, this dude did NOT understand what Carano is capable of. She can do so much more than what she was directed to do.
And when she DOES fight someone...it's a nameless thug (not the jerk that knocked her out - no, that guy fights a different thug; great, a brawl between two people we don't know or care about). This "fight" is done in badly lit shots, with weird cuts, and strange close-ups, so you never get to SEE her fight. She can fight. Let her fight!
What This Has To Do With Tabletop RPGs
Surely, my rant can continue for many pages more, but I assure you I had a point, and it is rooted in this idea:
If you want to play a damsel - a fainting flower who danes to be rescued and won like a prize - go for it.
If you want to play a warrior - someone skilled in hand-to-hand combat and who revels in the ring - go for it.
If you're a dude and you want to play a gal, have at it.
If you're a lady and you want to play the meanest boy in town, more power to you.
If you want to play a gender-fluid wood elf sharpshooter, be my guest.
And, as your Director...I mean, GM...I will NEVER adjust your role in the game based on your GENDER. Women can be warriors, men can be damsels, and heroes (and villains) come in all shapes and sizes.
And it is my job to give you opportunities to shine and show off. If you have cultivated your character to be a serious, half-orc grappler, then I will make sure that you have opportunities to GRAPPLE. I WANT you to show off. I WANT you to succeed in your concept.
That doesn't mean you auto-win a scenario, but if you've built someone who should naturally be good at this skill, then I'm going to cultivate scenarios that allow you to show yourself to be good at your skill. I need to give you the wide angle shots, pass you the patience to show (don't tell), and watch you turn the tide as a warrior who reassesses her situation and adapts to new data.
Because that's what fighting is.
And if you built a sharpshooter, then I better damn well make sure you have some opportunities to shoot stuff. If you built a fainting noble, then by golly I'll make sure you have opportunities to react in kind! Whatever your slice of fun, whatever your build, whatever your core concept, it is a GM's duty to provide you with a time and possibility to BE that thing.
This isn't to say there won't be moments of challenge, nor will I spell it out for you in meticulous detail what is possible, but all of this ties discretely into our REST model.
I will Respect your character concept as it aligns with the setting, and I will Respect your Gender in whatever form it takes. I will practice Empathy in your vision as you embark on this journey. I will seek to provide Satisfying encounters where you can shine and show off. And I will build Trust through these encounters, even as they change and evolve.
You are all Gina Carano.
I will let you fight.
See you at the table.
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, amateur bartender, and aspiring fiction author.
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