Still in process, of course...
For more Behind-The-Scenes of my painting process, exclusive deals, and my full catalogue of finished works, visit my Patreon.
For more Behind-The-Scenes of my painting process, exclusive deals, and my full catalogue of finished works, visit my Patreon.
Sergeant Leonard heard the cries in the brush.
He abandoned his post minutes before the yips began, and even then, he trusted his lightfoot roots to carry him over the marsh to where the child lay. He was certain everyone had evacuated; the militias were ready on the rooftops. Their intel was good, their scouts intact. Someone must have been left behind.
His boots sink into dense muck and mud, noting the deer footprints that surrounded him. He checks the horizon once more, columns of ominous smoke rising. Must be the war party, I still have time. The cries sound again - someone is sobbing. "It's all right, little one! You can come out. It's just me."
The sobbing stops, a choked reply comes shaking, "ArE yoU here TO KiLl mE?"
Poor thing; must be scared all to hell. He sheathes his sword, holding his hands out to the brush. "No one's here to hurt you. See? Just a friendly halfling. Let's get you out of here and home safely." He flashes a warm smile.
"What is it, Sergeant?" A call resounds behind him from the outpost.
He turns. "Just a child. Don't worry, I'll get them..." A stench fills his nostrils. Pungent and rotting, like the bile that spills forth from a rancid stomach. The sergeant's heart drops as his hand grabs the hilt of his saber, a low rumbling chuckle vibrating the tall marsh grass surrounding him.
Powerful, rotting jaws clamp onto his leg. They rend his plated greaves to ribbons and he cries out in pain. He is yanked backwards, his saber flying from his fingers, and his body disappears into the brush. His screams of pain are echoed by the frenetic laughter of hyenas, and the war party crests the hill, charging the town.
Children of Yeenoghu
The first of these creatures came from the hordes of hyenas spilling into the material world during Yeenoghu's rampages. Some of the beasts that feasted on the corpses of the fallen underwent different transformations than the traditional gnolls. Of those twisted amalgamations, Leucrotta were the most numerous.
Clever and cruel, a Leucrotta loves to deceive, torture, and kill. Despite there lupine appearance, these are not pets. In fact, Leucrottas tend to be smarter and more controlled than the gnolls that often surround them. The gnolls are entertained by a Leucrotta's ability to mimic the sounds of a suffering victim, or by its ability to "play with their food," prolonging suffering as long as possible. With such deceptive and terrible intelligence, a Leucrotta can hold an elevated position within a tribe, but rarely leads one. However, a gnoll chieftain might be seen riding one into battle. But this is not a noble steed; this is a tactical advisor - an influencer to draw the most out of a kill. Beware the fleet of gnolls that ride the dreaded Leucrottas - for they will do much worse than kill you.
The Leucrotta is a stinky boi.
Its horrible body of transformed hyena and deer oozes a toxic stench that pollutes and desecrates anywhere it lairs. Its breath is worse. Dripping from its maw, fluid corrupted with rot and digestive juices kills the plant life around it. In place of fangs, it has bony ridges harder than steel that can crush bones and open up a paladin like a soup can.
The stench alone should probably ward off any prey before they get too close, but the Leucrotta has a few advantages on their side. Due to their amalgamation, their tracks are indistinguishable from deer and other fauna. Also, and more alarming, they possess a mimicry ability that they use to duplicate the call and vocal expressions of just about anything they've heard. A crying child, a wounded bird, a missing ally; they'll use anything from their massive library to lure in potential prey and strike while they are confused.
By The Numbers
The attribute suite of this critter compliments the physical well, with a +2-4 in Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution. Unlike other dread doggos we've come across, this one's pretty smart and perceptive, but don't count on it for any Charisma checks. AC and HP are what you'd expect for something with natural armor, but just because most strikers can hit it, don't rush in half-cocked.
With its connections to Yeenoghu, this creature utilizes ferocity and tactics shared by its gnoll cousins, like their Rampage feature - where if they drop a creature, they can move and attack again. Also, a Leucrotta has multiattack, one of those attacks being with its hooves. Couple this with a special feature that allows it to Disengage as a Bonus Action after a hoof attack, and you've got a mobile (50 speed!) threat. And if this thing gets lucky on its bite, watch out - a critical hit from a Leucrotta rolls the damage three times, instead of twice. If you're using doubling rules, they triple their critical hits. OUCH.
Leucrotta In The Ionian Planes
A Leucrotta is a creature of cruelty and killing, but one that enjoys the sport of it all more than its gnoll brothers and sisters. This even minute level of control lends to each greater opportunities for planning, tactics, and learning. I imagine behind the most successful chieftains sits a Leucrotta, bending agendas, granting advice, and guiding the power like a terrible surgeon. Their intellect, though stronger than most of their counterparts, is outmatched by many others, so garnering a pack instead of soldiers is where their above-average wisdom shines. However, at least in Io, packs blessed with a Leucrotta find great value in them, but can only seem to have one at a time. This is less the gnolls's predicament and more the pride of a Leucrotta, for once it has tasted power, it has little want or use for a rival. And if another were adopted into a pack, it is only a matter of time before one ends up dead at the bottom of a ravine.
And that does it for December, and 2020! Up next? Not sure. The polls haven't closed yet.
Celestials and Fiends are extensive. We'll see who wins next week. Happy New Year, friends.
Help support this blog and vote on its Monster Of The Week, every month, every week, by heading over to my Patreon.
It is a dog. No, a hound. Tufts of layered, dense, matted purple fur rolls over wide shoulders and long, hunched neck. A whimpering mule shudders up from the body as I approach. SNAP. My boot crunches the twig and a wince. The muling stops and I watch those shoulders slope forward, the head turning my way...and a pit forms in my stomach. A humanoid, twisted face with burning red eyes stares back at me, jaw hanging open. A mix of flat and sharpened teeth jut out from open mouth, and the moaning returns, rising to a howl. I try to draw my sword, but my body can only shake as I watch the hound rise and float a foot off the ground. Even as it wales, its head tilts to the side curiously. Then it flies toward me.
Gifts Of The Dark Fey
If one impresses members of the Old Guard of Fey, they might be gifted with a Yeth Hound. Such a gift is high praise, as the Yeth is a companion for life, connected telepathically to their master and charged with their protection at all costs.
But these hounds reflect their original creators, and are by no means good creatures. Originally personified by a headless, bloodied hound in some cultures, the origin of a Yeth is one rooted in sorrow, always reflected in their strange, baleful howl. To hear the howl is a warning, but to see its source often spells doom.
According to Volo's Guide, these creatures are large hounds with flat, humanoid faces and features, and though it looks like they may bound quickly, they often HOVER creepily overhead. It is this unnatural mobility that makes them deadly sentries for their masters.
By The Numbers
In terms of raw defenses and hit points, the Yeth Hound isn't that intimidating, but make sure you're packing something silver. Their physical stats (Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution) are noticeably high, but they're dumb as a post most of the time.
Where they become truly dangerous is in their unnatural, creepy mobility and their dreaded "Baleful Baying" howl ability. The thing's got a 300 foot range, so make sure your Wisdom is decent before engaging with one. If you happen to be one of the unlucky low rollers against the howl, that frightened condition does a lot more for the Yeth than it does for you, stacking on extra psychic damage for its scared victims. And I can't blame them; the image of this thing bearing down on you is NOT pleasant.
As an aside, I was actually very intrigued to write about this thing.
There is something wholly unnerving about these large Fey doggos with humanoid faces, who creepily hover overhead and paralyze prey with their baleful howl. It's just such an unsettling image. Add on to this the fact that as long as it's on the same plane as its master, it can ALWAYS contact it telepathically. Woof, buddy.
The Yeth In Io
Sentries Of The Deep Night
As servants gifted by old Fey, a Yeth Hound always has a home in the Feywild. Denizens and visitors alike who gain favor in the Verdant Court may find themselves with a Large, loyal, and evil companion that can't be charmed or frightened away.
Just, imagine for a moment, waking up with this thing sitting in your living room. Just. THERE. Totally silent. And then its red eyes slowly turn your way, like some living furred statue and a voice enters your mind like Dug from Up. "I sat in your living room in the dark because I love you. And now I'll love you FOREVER." The face doesn't change the entire time. Lol.
But not just any Fey can gift you a Yeth. They must be made first, and only one of the four Courts knows how. Skilled in curses and the binding of souls, the Ladies Of Winter, under the instruction of King Oberon himself, have much practice in plucking the unfortunate mortals of deals gone wrong and pipers unpaid, and supplanting their essence into a new form - one to serve the Deep Night and the citizens of Air and Darkness.
If a singular entity can be gifted one Yeth for an impression, imagine the army Winter commands. Hundreds of baleful, wailing sentries silently drifting across the night skies; keeping watch and wary over the fane kingdoms.
Watch for the red eyes and motionless face, and keep your distance, lest the mournful cries of a soul forever trapped in servitude reaches your ears...and rends your mind asunder.
Sleep well, travelers.
Help support this blog and vote on its Monster Of The Week, every month, every week, by heading over to my Patreon.
In the time immemorial, long before the mortals killed them, the masters of the goblin races beseeched the General of Gehenna for aid. The General provided yugoloth souls to serve the goblinoid triumvirate in the Infinite Battlefields of Acheron. Yet when the time came to honor the debt, the goblin gods reneged on the deal.
The powerful entities that ruled Gehenna marked the goblinoid races for slaughter, and, as an act of vengeance, created the scourge of their nightmares...
A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing
In 5th Edition, a Barghest is born from goblin parents just like any other offspring. But this entity harbors a deadly and dreadful secret. Though it emerges in a goblin's body, it will learn quickly how to assume its true form: that of a large, fearsome, and fiendish canine. In some cultures and lore, the difference is clear: a Barghest can be a yellow-skinned goblin of bigger, more muscular frame, and is marked by the fearsome yellow glow that spills into their eyes when they're excited. In other cultures, the Barghest looks like any other of its sheep, and will do its best to hide its true nature, at least in the beginning.
A Barghest's purpose is to devour the goblinoid souls of creatures it kills, the more important or renowned the better. This means that they are discerning with whom they "honor" in consumption, and there's a limited number of seats in their mission. You see, when Maglubiyet, and others like them, broke in total 17 oaths to the General, so it is decreed that one soul be consumed for every broken oath. After this, the Barghest may return to Gehenna and reap the spoils of its completed mission. Fail, and be torn asunder for its insolence.
For this one might think that a Barghest discovered by its goblinoid brethren would be killed in fear, but it is often the exact opposite. Goblins and others of their ilk will fawn over and shower the discovered Barghest with praise, servitude, and diminutive allegiance, constantly attempting to show that they are equal parts useful to its cause AND lowly enough to be undeserving of consumption. It is this strange dance that will drive those under a Barghest's leadership to commit great deeds in their name, only to be cut down and eaten for such renown.
Rooted In Folklore
As with many of our modern edition's monsters, the classical images and inspiration we draw from have a long history of deep folklore and iteration. The Barghest is no stranger to this, summoning up dark tales across multiple peoples and regions.
According to old North English folklore, the Barghest was a mythical, monstrous black dog with huge claws and sharp teeth. This original picture holds true across time, if not for a few creative liberties and adjustments, but the etymology of the word is of note. Barghest, or Barguest, roughly translates to "bear" and "ghost" in the old tongue. Couple this with further alternative spellings and we get my favorite version, the Bahr-geist, bringing the rough translation swinging more toward "spirit of the funeral pyre."
This creature has always been connected to the consequences of death, much more than a simple ghost story. A creature of intense malice and hatred, its purpose is derived through perceived destruction of its own community, at least at first, but ends in realms of power. What began as a warning of the things that go bump in the night grew into tales of shapeshifters and long-lived fiends, doppelgängers and howling at the moon, and a lupine strength coupled with a sentient intellect, and a burning, hateful purpose.
By The Numbers
A Barghest is one tough cookie. Already resistant to most elemental damage and non-magical weapon damage, this thing boasts an AC of at least 17, and have no stat with a negative modifier. Trained in Deception, Stealth, Intimidation, and Perception, they are keen to their surroundings and good liars. Couple that with superior tracking abilities and innate charming spells at their disposal, and you've got a tricky (and STRONG) not-goblin on your hands.
Did I mention it has Blindsight and Telepathy out to 60 feet? Dude.
Despite its fiendish classification, the Barghest has a difficult relationship with fire, but not for the reasons you think. It's resistant to the stuff, which tracks, but any mass of it larger than the Barghest's body acts as a tearing of the veil between this plane and Gehenna, and poor thing can be banished there just by being in close proximity. Sure, you think, they can just bamf back, right? Unfortunately, no, as a Barghest is more likely to be caught, tortured, and killed for its failure to collect its souls for the General. Tough luck, doggo.
The Barghest In The Ionian Shadowfell
Twisted By Perpetual Darkness
The Ionian Shadowfell is one of dark purpose. Creatures born here do not hold sway in D&D's legacy of a sorrow-filled landscape. No, the creatures that spawn in this place are fueled by furious purpose and twisted by the Perpetual Night.
The Barghest is a rarity among such denizens, but their existence, especially following the engineering colonization before the turn of Io Shar, is not unheard of. Goblinoid mariners and pirates became more common beyond the Evernight, far in the reaches of Gressil's Helm.
Goblins and Hobgoblins born on the dark sea can sometimes bear the Mark of Gehenna, a sigil of deep crimson in the small of the back. Creatures bearing the Mark are both cursed and blessed with extreme bloodlust and wicked strength. At a coming of age, often in battle, the Mark can manifest, turning the skin of a "marked" jet black, and its true form will reveal itself.
Barghests take many forms in the Shadowfell, but all are lupine. Some appear like broken glass, the shards a refraction of their vision. Others are amorphous clouds with teeth. Many are hounds with sharpened, boney spurs and horns. And all are very, very dangerous.
Hounds Of The Chainbreaker
It is the Barghest's greatest will and purpose to complete its mission and return to the Generals of Gehenna. A throne awaits them in The Bleak Eternity.
Yet, this mission could take months, years, decades. In this time, a creature could gain power, prestige, and ownership. Perhaps they gain even more fulfillment than what awaits them in the worlds beyond. Which begs the question: what happens when a Barghest completes their mission...and does not wish to return?
Is it power or retribution that awaits them? To scorn their masters and their promise, and break the chains of their birthright. Or are they the husks of great warriors before, the lost soldiers of Gehenna hopelessly clinging to life and sanity, even as their masters siphon away what's left?
Unfortunately, the lore ends here. For no one seeks the Hounds of the Chainbreaker. The only thing that persists is a tiny warning scrawled in the stained journal of a deckhand, lone survivor of The Kretch Jumper and their ill-fated voyage.
"And to the poor souls that tempt venture beyond the ruins of Evynlee's Veil and seek the Moaning Gray through the Formless Cante, keep your eyes pinned to the horizon and seek not the masked hound that watches you from the peaks...for it covets all that meet its third eye."
It is worth noting that this message is written as its last entry, and the handwriting does not match previous entries.
More Of This Please
Unfortunately, in my experience so far, this critter is drastically underutilized. Their story is one of grand deception, superior command, and a cosmological mission with possible sweeping consequences. Imagine a villain poised as general of a goblin army, especially considering the complex relationship with his subjects. Imagine a hero, biting the line between the best picks of the worst people to destroy for his dark master.
There's a lot of depth here, and I can't wait for my players to begin to scrape the surface.
Sleep tight, doggo.
Source: The Barghest can be found in Volo's Guide To Monsters, published by Wizards of the Coast for use in 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons; also, TONS of actual British folklore.
Help support this blog and vote on its Monster Of The Week, every month, every week, by heading over to my Patreon.
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
Setting: Io (all ages)
Legacies carry weight in the expansive timeline of Io. A name can be earned, or stolen, or bound, or lost, and all carry a legacy of rich history and meaning. Much like the etymology of language, a name's path and purpose can change given their circumstances; heroes become villains, tyrants become priests, and thieves become nobles.
Yet these developments benefit most from a structured timeline. Instances and events of momentous growth and change powered by the metaphorical jet engine of past transgressions. There is a line to follow in this madness.
What if the line were broken? What if your name, your legacy, was taken from you; displaced somehow? Without the benefit of a past to learn from, what new future does a creature forge?
In today's Lore Drop, on November's theme of Legacy Names, let's take a look at one of the most curious of NPCs - the Va'Orodin.
Temporal imbalance in magic and arcanum is a running theme across every Age of Io, but in no other age was it felt more than at the turn of the 4th Age. The event that triggered the turn was the manipulation of an Ancient called the Riftskin - a terrifying creature made up of an endless cloud of indestructible, semi-sentient spikes - who tore through both the Infinite Battlefields of Acheron and the Plane of Water, flooding the Material Plane with volatile surges of magic and gigantic aquatic beasts. The event would usher in an age of steampunk piracy and expand the world and its industry, laying the groundwork for the sky ships of Cloudsinger...and their eventual fall.
But this surge of the untapped Aether sent ripples across the Feywild and Shadowfell, their oceans and tides rising to match their Material parallel, and with them, a torrent of storm fronts buffeted the once forgotten continents at the edges of the world. These storms, though, were special. Echoes of the tears - tattered remnants of the veils between worlds - these screaming tempests were gateways to other planes of existence, and, for some, a path across time.
The Loremasters of Io-Shar began documenting reports of expeditions to the far continents whose fleets were set upon by these temporal storms. Entire sections of ships struck by strange purple lightning; but the wood, cannons, and occupants were not destroyed...they were taken. Chunks of cities missing. Mountains and forests with impossible, gaping holes in their geography, only to be discovered hundreds of years later in Elysium or Pandemonium.
Collected in their archives were also minute entries, many tens to hundreds of years apart, of individuals seemingly displaced by these storms. Their stories are always the same; a thunderclap, a vision in the clouds, a flash, and now they are here. Most do not remember their past lives, but carry knowledge of past ages and their history, general and specific, and when asked their names, they can repeat them, save for one curious addition: first names are recalled perfectly, but each surname is precisely the same - "Va'Orodin."
Originally believed to an ancient, shared lineage across multiple races, the Loremasters of Empyr - the 5th Age - derived through their studies alongside the tribes of Air Elementals and the Skyborn Aarakocran that this name carried great power. In fact, its utterance was once a word of power among the Auran people. Roughly, it translates to "Storm-Touched."
Entities Out Of Time
In every Age of Io, a Va'Orodin has crossed the paths of the dozens of heroes ignited by furious purpose, but few gave their names. Of the ones that did, even fewer stuck around.
Io-Shar: Ja'Naya Va'Orodin was discovered by a pirate crew under the leadership of a stalwart lizardfolk (Ricin) and a grumpy elf (Grim). Ja'Naya was fiercely loyal to Captain Grim, devoting her life to his cause of vengeance and dominance over the flooded world. An adept cleric of some ancient neutral angel, Ja'Naya entered hailed from Io-Sooth, the 2nd Age, and carried with her a terrible sacrifice. The first keeper of the legendary Sunraker Gauntlet, she was surprised to find that when she would remove the item from her arm, her skin and muscle came with it. At some point in her past life, she willingly or unwillingly traded the flesh of her right arm for a legendary item. Whatever the case, though, the Gauntlet would leave her body at her passing nearly 20 years later, and serve the Valenwood family for nearly 100 years before passing into Loremaster care.
Io-Ren / Io-Shar: Once a cleric of Istus, the deity of fate and chance, Straiga Va'Orodin was undeterred by his displacement. An adept tactician and pole arm master, this red trifling would find rewarding work among others like him - the lost and forgotten. He found this home through the mercenary band known as the Knight Owls, and would rise through its ranks to command his own team in the 4th Age (Knight Owls - Season 3).
Io-Shar (Feywild): Yasha Va'Orodin is a creature of subtle, athletic frame, and stalwart reserve. She is one of the Gatekeepers of the nexus city of Astrazalian. Where and when she came from, no one really knows, but she holds great respect for the Fey Court, especially Lady Winter Sarissa. Perhaps we'll see more of her...perhaps not.
In the sky battles of Cloudsinger, during the 5th Age known as Empyr, the Va'Orodin of this age would find a dread purpose to follow. Once called The Smoking Banners, a coup within the ranks of this pirate legion would repurpose its resources to chase the temporal storms that ravaged the surface of the Material Plane. These "Stormsingers" would ride the dark lightning currents and attempt to harness the tears between worlds, trying to shift planes with their ships. Some sought conquest, while others yearned for the astral frontier. Many...just wanted to go home. And many, failed and died.
But one, a charismatic swashbuckler named Gideon Briarios (Va'Orodin), with his fleet of Singing Hammers, found the gateway to Elysium this way. In fact, it was the event that ushered in the 5th Age, when he broke the coveted Seal Of Heaven, and ignited the dormant World Engines in the First Cities of Io-Temm (the 1st Age). It was this event that lifted the old civilizations into the clouds and awakened the dragon lords to reclaim the sky. It is his song that the bards sing when they sing of Stormsingers, and it his banner they rally behind.
Flames Of A Second Chance
And what say the Raven Queen, the one who holds memory and time and antiquity aloft to the thousands of souls that pass her bastion in the planes of shadow? Or the Angels of the Sunrake? Or the Valkyrum of the Evernight? Powerful overlords and dissonant factions pull a curious lens over those in ages without belonging, so what purpose awaits creatures like this?
This old Loremaster is pulled to consider instead the Equation of Potential. As long-lived as I am, I know not everything, nor did my past lives, but if you'll humor a fellow ancient for a moment, we may yet find common ground. There are many across the Ages whose actions have sent ripples unknown; great things, terrible things, powerful things. All without knowledge of the future. Yet, we know there to be entities whose intelligence and memory are ageless; the mere concept of our mortality is a single drop in the river of their understanding. Perhaps, say, they drop a pebble into that river. Each ripple is a lifetime, and three lifetimes over, a ripple shifts a stone ever so slightly, and the river flows a different direction. Such a tiny act can have a tremendous impact. And if that pebble had free will? Yes, I think we understand each other.
So are the Storm-Touched spilled by design of some great entity, or are their fateful tempests random? This one knows not. Only time will tell.
Safe travels, Stormsinger.
-Loremaster Arteza Rainmaker
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
The End Of The World: Zombie Apocalypse
One day, a friend of mine showed up to my table with a gift. Twas this unassuming blood red book entitled: The End Of The World - Zombie Apocalypse. Intrigued by another installment from Fantasy Flight Games, I stuck it on my shelf to revisit when I could, and then my whole world got flipped upside down.
Now, nearly two years later, on this the October of the literal pandemic apocalypse, I thought it high time to dedicate a little energy and focus to this curious little system.
Today will serve as an overview - an introduction to the theming of the system and its tone. Then, we'll have a part 2 next week where we make some honest characters. Why "honest"? You'll understand in a moment.
How This Differs From D&D
Unlike many other fantasy tabletop experiences, games run in this series of scenarios place the players in PC roles far removed from the classical elven ranger. In fact, you don't play anything at all - the game character is literally yourself, or at least the fictionalized version of yourself portrayed as an avatar in the game world (honestly).
Yes, We're Still In Kansas...and there's blood everywhere.
This isn't a far off land or alternate plane of existence. The setting is your current location, city, town, neighborhood; the events of the game scenario unfold where you live and NPCs and characters are intended to be based on people and locations you know.
Short Scenarios and Survival
The goals and "missions" in this game are fast-paced, deadly, dangerous, and narrative-based. Combat exists, it's not hyper-detailed or super tactical, as going toe-to-toe with a zombie is probably a scenario that you yourself don't want to be in by any means. The scenarios we move through are difficult challenges on the path of survival; raiding a hospital for valuable medical supplies - finding a better bunker when the first is compromised - fighting starvation while you power through mastering hunting skills you've never had to use before.
Oh, and everything's done with D6's. :)
Tests and Checks
As with most alternative systems to D&D, there are always similar mechanics with synonymous terms. Checks become Tests in this case. Anytime you want to do something, the GM will decide if a Test is needed - and it's even dictated in the rules to save Tests for important or exciting moments only, when your success or failure matters to the outcome of the story.
This distinction is huge to put out front, as many tables often call for rolls too much for mundane or arbitrary tasks. As you're representing yourself, you may not need to roll for a task you already know how to do. But context is key here - there's a big difference between running for an athlete, and running down a street being chased by a horde of fast zombies, even for an athlete. The latter would probably have a Test involved, whereas the former would be unnecessary.
But instead of a DC, you're rolling with positive and negative dice, like stacking the odds in your favor or stacking them against you with complications. We'll take a look at some specific mechanical examples next time (10/10/20).
There are a decent number of "loose" mechanic / high narrative games out there on the market today. It can be difficult to separate oneself from the shadow of D&D if you incorporate similar mechanics, so many games launch themselves so far to the other end to provide space enough to grow in their own niche.
I've seen this work. Fate Core does this particularly well.
I've also seen this fail miserably.
But I am very intrigued. A zombie adventure with a bit more grit, and an honest look at character creation that is intentionally intimate and straightforward may be just the fire one needs to create a short, powerful story.
...We'll see you next time for some character creation.
Don't get bit.
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, amateur bartender, and aspiring fiction author.
Mondays: Patreon Mini
Tuesday: Lore Drop
Wednesday: Other Corners
Thursday: Moonriver Bar
Friday: Podcast goes up!
Saturday: GM's Corner
Sunday: REST DAY